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Tuesday, May 23, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Bunch sues Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau

Austin activist Bill Bunch filed suit after hours Monday against the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (which on April 28 filed an assumed name certificate allowing it to operate under the name Visit Austin) for refusing to disclose the salaries of its 50 highest-paid employees, its contract with the ACVB president and a report commissioned by the convention center that allegedly details why Austin lost certain conventions.

Bunch alleges in his lawsuit that ACVB, which receives 83 percent of its funds from the city of Austin’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, has violated the Texas Public Information Act by refusing to disclose the information.

The lawsuit points out that ACVB “is leading the charge to have the Austin City Council increase (the Hotel Occupancy Tax) and buy land to expand the Austin Convention Center. The ACVB claims it has a report about convention opportunities that Austin lost out on supposedly because the Convention Center is too small. But ACVB refuses to publicly disclose this report.”

The nonprofit ACVB was created by City Council in 1996 and Council approves its annual budget. When Bunch requested information on employee salaries, among other things, ACVB declined to provide the information and asked the Texas Attorney General for an opinion on the matter.

The lawsuit says that the president/CEO of ACVB received a salary of $376,508 in 2015, including a bonus of $82,272 and a paid membership at a health club.

Attorney Bill Aleshire, an expert in open government litigation, is representing Bunch. Although Bunch is executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, he filed suit as a citizen.

According to the lawsuit, the consolidated annual financial report of ACVB for 2016 shows that the entity receives more than $14.4 million from the city out of its total revenue of $17.5 million. Bunch initially asked the city of Austin for ACVB financial information, but the city’s Law Department declined to provide it, telling Bunch he would have to ask ACVB directly.

Bunch learned that the convention center is required to disclose the salaries of its employees on tax returns. When he asked for the 2016 returns, ACVB told Bunch that the 2016 return had not yet been filed. However, according to the lawsuit the 2015 tax return is publicly available online.

In addition to the president’s large salary, the lawsuit reveals that in 2015 ACVB also reported paying $241,836 to its senior vice president, $165,904 to its vice president/CMO and $100,000 to each of five other officers.

“ACVB reported to the IRS that it pays annual salaries to just its eight ‘highest compensated employees’ of over $1.4 million. … But ACVB refuses to divulge the up-to-date salary information in response to Bill Bunch’s public information request,” according to the suit.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges that “ACVB runs up a monthly American Express bill that exceeds $80,000 but has not yet disclosed what those expenditures are for.”

Bunch is requesting that the court hold an expedited hearing on his request for mandamus and order ACVB to apply all the information he has requested.

The Austin Monitor was not able to reach the spokeswoman for ACVB Monday night.

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This story has been changed in order to clarify that the suit is against ACVB in the headline, not The Austin Convention Center. Photo by Ed Schipul made available through a Creative Commons license.

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