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Ethics Commission gives candidates slap on wrist

Thursday, October 30, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

Some City Council candidates are having trouble following Austin’s campaign finance laws. The Ethics Review Commission addressed three complaints against candidates in Districts 6, 8 and 10 Tuesday night. Each candidate admitted wrongdoing, and none of them walked away with major sanctions.

After spending more than an hour discussing the complaints behind closed doors, the commission reconvened to conduct a preliminary hearing on a complaint filed Sept. 10 by Steve Speir, a resident of the Windsor Park Neighborhood, against District 10 candidate Robert Thomas.

Austin campaign finance laws require candidates to report personal loans or campaign expenditures from personal funds of $25,000 or more within seven business days of the funds becoming available. In the complaint, Speir said Thomas failed to report a $30,000 campaign expenditure to Stampede Consulting on July 1 within the required time frame.

Thomas is a lawyer and business consultant who chairs the Austin Independent School District Bond Oversight Committee. Speir is on the board of directors for political action committee Better Austin Today, which endorsed Thomas’ District 10 opponent Jason Meeker. There are eight total candidates running for the District 10 Council seat.

At the hearing, Speir and Thomas were cordial with one another, with Speir saying Thomas’ actions were “probably just an oversight.”

Thomas admitted he missed the seven-day deadline to declare the expenditure, but said that the money came from his personal bank account and he was confused by the city’s reporting requirements.

“I don’t think there’s any question that I missed the dates,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t done intentionally.”

Commission member Donna Beth McCormick said that when a candidate files for office, the city clerk gives her or him a packet of information that includes reporting requirements, which the city expects the candidate to read and abide.

“It is very explicit,” McCormick said.

Thomas said he read the packet and tried to make sense of the information.

“It was truly just confusion,” he said of the violation.

The commission voted 4-2 to send Thomas a letter of admonition, or reprimand, which states the candidate may or may not have acted intentionally and offers guidance on how to avoid breaking campaign finance laws in the future.

Commission members Sylvia Hardman-Dingle and James Ruiz cast the dissenting votes, saying Thomas’ error was clearly unintentional; they suggested the commission instead send him a letter of notification, which specifies unintentional wrongdoing and similarly offers recommendations to avoid future reporting mistakes.

The commission also voted 4-2 to send a letter of admonition to District 8 candidate Becky Bray, whom Mary Rudig, a member of the Gracywoods Neighborhood Association and editor of the North Austin Community Newsletter, accused of accepting a campaign contribution of more than $350 — the maximum amount allowed by law.

In her Oct. 1 complaint, Rudig said Bray accepted a loan from William Terry Bray, her father, for $20,000, and that the loan should be considered a contribution. Rudig also said Bray failed to report a $30,000 personal loan to her campaign within seven days.

Bray filed an amendment to her campaign finance report with the city clerk on Oct. 3, which included her $30,000 personal loan. She also wrote a letter to the Ethics Commission, saying she disclosed the $20,000 loan from William Terry Bray in her July 15 report, but did not categorize the loan as a contribution. Bray added that she returned the loan immediately after Rudig filed her complaint.

At the hearing Tuesday night, William Terry Bray appeared in place of Becky Bray, saying the mistake was unintentional and the money was returned immediately. He asked for a modest sanction from the commission.

Again, Hardman-Dingle and Ruiz cast the dissenting votes, saying the Brays deserved only a letter of notification for the error because the violation was clearly unintentional.

Commission Vice Chairman Peter Einhorn believed the more severe letter of admonition was fitting. He said there is a pattern of candidates failing to follow campaign finance laws.

Commission member Dennis Speight agreed with Einhorn. Looking over Bray’s finance report, he said he saw several other violations that Rudig did not include in her complaint — but could have.

McCormick and Commission Chairman Austin Kaplan sided with Einhorn and Speight for a letter of admonition. After the vote, Einhorn took William Terry Bray outside the meeting room to point out other errors in his daughter’s campaign finance report.

District 6 candidate Mackenzie Kelly got off the easiest, with commissioners voting 5-1 to send her a letter of notification, implying her violation of the law was clearly unintentional.

In his complaint, Earl L. Jones, who lives in the North Burnet Road area of town, accused Kelly of violating the Austin Fair Campaign Contract — which she admitted she signed — by failing to appear for the Sept. 15 League of Women Voters forum.

Kelly argued that she had suffered symptoms of a concussion the night of the forum, including headaches and nausea. She said her doctor advised her to skip the forum and rest, and she gave commissioners a copy of a note from her doctor.

Kelly said she also sent a letter to Commission Staff Liaison Cindy Tom after the forum, explaining why she could not appear.

Speight, who cast the dissenting vote, immediately suggested Kelly receive no sanctions for the mistake because she missed the forum for health reasons.

McCormick countered that Kelly had sent no one from her campaign to represent her at the forum.

McCormick also said she sent emails to all the candidates who did not attend the forum and never received a response from Kelly.

Kaplan proposed that the commission send Kelly a letter of notification. He said he understands if she could not attend for health reasons, but added, “It seems to me there was enough time to send an email before the forum.”

Ruiz agreed, saying, “I don’t see any excuse for not notifying the forum in advance.”

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