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Opponents question legality of Prop 1 spampaign

Thursday, May 5, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The political action committee fighting against Proposition 1 suggested on Wednesday that Uber, Lyft and the PAC those corporations have poured millions into could be breaking the law in their fight to rewrite the city’s ride-hailing regulations.

“To be blunt, this campaign doesn’t pass the smell test,” said former City Council Member Laura Morrison, a volunteer with the Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice PAC. “And we are calling for a broad investigation of Uber and Lyft’s actions to determine if they have stepped over the line from grossly inappropriate to illegality.”

Local political consultant Mark Littlefield and attorney-activist Fred Lewis joined Morrison in condemning the Ridesharing Works for Austin PAC’s aggressive outreach efforts — which have included a seemingly unending stream of mailers — and what they characterized as a lack of political disclosure.

They are also questioning the legality of Uber and Lyft offering free or discounted rides to the polls, using customers’ phone numbers for unsolicited text messages and phone calls, and coordinating their corporate marketing with their PAC’s political messaging.

And, late Wednesday, Melissa Cubria called the question, filing suit against Uber for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. (That lawsuit can be found embedded at the end of this article.)

Both California-based companies have poured more than $8.1 million into Ridesharing Works’ coffers, easily setting a new record for local Austin politics. The PAC has spent more than $6 million so far and reported a new $250,000 media buy in papers filed on Wednesday.

But it’s the less quantifiable expenditures, including Lyft’s offer of discounted rides and marketing mailers sent by Uber, that rubbed the Our City PAC the wrong way.

“When free rides, discounts and other benefits can be offered to voters, sight unseen, with no transparent reporting as is required by law, it is a fundamental threat to our election system and our democracy,” Littlefield said.

He added that several people who have received election-related text messages from Uber have filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission. Among them is Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, who was also at Wednesday’s press conference.

Shea showed the Austin Monitor the text message she received on Monday. It read, “Brigid, this is Eric from Uber. Ridesharing is on the ballot and early voting ends tomorrow! Can we count on your vote FOR Prop 1 to keep Uber in Austin?”

“I did not give consent for my phone to be used for political campaigning,” said Shea, who also added that she has both Uber and Lyft’s apps on her phone and primarily uses Lyft.

The Monitor reached out to both companies and the Ridesharing Works PAC for comment on the complaints. A representative for Lyft said that the company’s “activities in Austin comply with the law.”

Former Texas Deputy Attorney General David S. Morales, who now represents Uber, said, “Uber has worked hard to ensure strict compliance with the Texas Election Code and all other applicable laws as they relate to the May 7 election. Any allegations to the contrary are without merit.”

Meanwhile, Travis Considine of Ridesharing Works didn’t address the Our City PAC’s claims but instead sent a statement from former Mayor Lee Leffingwell praising the high turnout during early voting and encouraging more support for Prop 1.

While the Our City PAC team stopped short of outright accusing its rivals of breaking the law, Lewis spared little love for Uber in particular. “Frankly, their corporate behavior appears sociopathic and based on essentially no morals and no values,” he said.

Election day is this Saturday.

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