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Austin politics joins world of shadowy PAC action

Thursday, December 11, 2014 by Jo Clifton

Even though some political action committees have made a bigger splash in terms of negative messaging during this City Council election season, the Austin Firefighters Association, which has two political committees helping candidates, has spent the most money.

Bob Nicks, president of the association, confirmed Wednesday that his two committees have spent close to $250,000 in support of Council candidates this fall. All of their messages are positive, and Nicks said that is on purpose. The firefighters want nothing to do with negative campaigning.

Firefighters are funding these committees through dues in hopes of electing former firefighter Mike Martinez as mayor — they have spent $170,000 in independent expenditures on his campaign since the Nov. 4 election. In addition, the firefighters are supporting Ellen Troxclair in District 8, Leslie Pool in District 7, Mandy Dealey in District 10, Greg Casar in District 4 and Sabino Renteria in District 3. The largest expenditure on behalf of those candidates is for Troxclair. The firefighters contributed $15,000 to the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin PAC for printing and mailing expenses for Troxclair.

Nicks was very open to talking about the money and how the firefighters are spending it.

That stands in direct contrast to the group that produced last week’s two-page American-Statesman ad attacking political consultant David Butts and advising voters to reject candidates he supposedly supports. Ian Marcotte is listed as the treasurer for the Coalition of Austin Neighborhoods. Marcotte described himself as a self-employed political researcher in campaign finance reports filed with the city and the Texas Ethics Commission. According to those reports, Marcotte alone donated $20,500 to the PAC. The most recent filing does not list any other donors, and the sole expenditure listed was to the Statesman for the ad.

Attorney Jim Cousar, an expert on Texas election law, noted that the Dec. 8 report failed to list the candidates the Coalition of Austin Neighborhoods is supporting or opposing. The group did file another document noting that it was opposing Casar, Dealey, Pool and Ed Scruggs, who is running in District 8.

Cousar noted that the Statesman is paid to print advertising but does not do the graphics. “Someone did the work and presumably got paid — unless they’re working for free. It wasn’t an amateur job. It was professionally done. So it does not report any expenditure for creation of the ad,” he said.

“I don’t know for a fact that the money didn’t all come from one person … (But) it’s very unusual for all the money to come from one political consultant … particularly unusual when the principal occupation is self-employed political researcher … who very rarely would have $22,000 to spend opposing candidates in a city election,” he concluded.

Other than Marcotte, two men active in political circles indicated that they are involved with the group but did not reveal exactly what that involvement was. They are former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy and Peck Young of the Austin Community College Center for Public Policy and Political Studies. Marcotte could not be reached for comment.

Both the Travis County Republican Party and the Travis County Democratic Party got involved in a big way for the first time in Council races this year. Republicans reported that they spent nearly $20,000 Dec. 3 to assist their candidates: Don Zimmerman in District 6, Troxclair in District 8 and Sheri Gallo in District 10.

The Democrats reported a much smaller amount, about $800 for printing in support of Casar in District 4, Jimmy Flannigan in District 6, Scruggs in District 8 and Dealey in District 10. The same report shows the Democrats support Ted Gordon for AISD District 1.

The Sierra Club Political Committee of Texas reported spending $725 on advertising to support Ora Houston in District 1, Casar in District 4, Susana Almanza in District 3, Leslie Pool in District 7 as well as Scruggs, Dealey and Flannigan.

The group called Progress for Austin PAC spent nearly $20,000 for printing, postage and legal services in support of Steve Adler for mayor. This group includes Marc Winkleman, Dan Graham, Adam Loewy, Michael Klein and Tom Meredith. This PAC sent out mailers attacking Martinez that many consider misleading. Its headline is “Politician Mike Martinez cut a deal with prosecutors to avoid facing possible jail time and stuck us with his $24,657.50 legal bill.”

It was never likely that Martinez or any of his colleagues would go to jail over sidestepping public discussions of public business by meeting in private. Martinez and every current member of the Council, except for Kathie Tovo who was not in office during the alleged open meetings violations, signed agreements with County Attorney David Escamilla to avoid prosecution.

The Austin Board of Realtors political action committee spent about $26,000 last week in support of Casar and Flannigan. They spent their money on candidate mailers and radio advertising.

At the age of 97, longtime Austin environmentalist Shudde Fath has jumped into the PAC race with her very own political action committee, the Shudde Fath PAC, to help her candidate, Martinez. She and her daughter, Betsy Fath Hiller, reported that they had contributed and spent $1,450 in support of Martinez.



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