Wednesday, October 14, 2015 by Jack Craver

Ethics Commission reprimands Zimmerman

The Ethics Review Commission voted unanimously to sanction City Council Member Don Zimmerman for two violations of city campaign finance code Tuesday night. They also voted unanimously to issue a written reprimand to Zimmerman, though they did not recommend prosecuting the matter further.

A reprimand is the second-most severe written sanction given by the commission. It’s not as serious as a censure, but it’s more serious than an admonition or a notification.

The hearing was prompted by several complaints lodged by legal clerk Mark Walters. Two of those complaints – including a charge that Zimmerman violated ethics rules by making a controversial remark about gay marriage on Facebook – were dismissed at a preliminary hearing last month. The commission voted at that time to proceed to a final hearing on two other complaints related to campaign finance reporting.

Specifically, Walters accused Zimmerman of violating city ordinance by failing to file two forms – a debt reconciliation statement and a bank reconciliation statement – that are supposed to be included in the annual campaign finance report due from municipal candidates on Jan. 15.

Zimmerman did not show up for the meeting, a fact that a number of commissioners said shaped their decision on how to vote. Commission Chair Austin Kaplan said he might have favored a less severe sanction if Zimmerman had abided by the panel’s request to attend the meeting.

“I think his actions demean what this commission does,” said Kaplan.

Zimmerman’s attorney, Jerad Najvar, argued repeatedly that language in the city code was ambiguous and demanded that candidates file redundant forms. Laws that are overly vague cannot be enforced, he said.

“It would be an unconstitutional burden, potentially, that somebody file additional paperwork that doesn’t serve any purpose,” he continued.

Najvar showed that a number of other candidates, including four current Council members, hadn’t filed one or both of the forms. He encouraged the commission to seize the opportunity to interpret the code and set forth authoritative requirements.

None of the commissioners appeared to be persuaded by that argument. They repeatedly asked Najvar why Zimmerman hadn’t filed the forms in the nearly four months since the complaint was first filed.

“He still hasn’t done anything about it – that gives me a lot of concern,” said Commissioner Robert “Ben” Stratmann. “After multiple Ethics Review Commission meetings and 10 times as many news stories.”

After the meeting, Najvar said he was disappointed with the commission’s ruling. He also said he had advised his client not to show for the meeting.

“You don’t want to let the process become the punishment in these types of situations,” he told reporters. “To consume six hours between last hearing and this hearing of a Council member’s time because some political opponent files a complaint just is not called for when there’s no relevant information he can add.”

Kaplan indicated after the meeting that he would like to see the commission gain the power to subpoena witnesses, a legal change that would have to be approved by Council.

This story has been corrected to reflect Ben Stratmann’s preferred name, which is Ben.

Phtot by M.Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Ethics Review Commission: The Ethics Review Commission is charged with review of, among other issues, ethics complaints leveled against City of Austin boards and commission members. They meet quarterly.

Don Zimmerman: Former Austin City Council Member for District 6 (2014-2016)

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