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Friday, September 1, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Fred Lewis appointment stirs controversy

Fred Lewis, an attorney who served as the main architect of the city’s new lobbying ordinance, surprisingly became the center of an ethics controversy on Thursday when City Council appointed him to serve on the 2018 Charter Review Commission.

Lewis worked for many months on an ordinance specifically aimed at preventing lobbyists from serving on city commissions. One of the industry representatives who worked with Lewis on that ordinance was Nick Moulinet, board chair of the Real Estate Council of Austin.

Moulinet was furious when he learned that Council Member Alison Alter planned to appoint Lewis, because Lewis registered in April 2016 as a lobbyist. Although Lewis says he never accepted any clients or money to do lobbying and his registration has expired, he did register.

RECA CEO Dianne Bangle and Moulinet pointed out, in a letter sent to Council on Wednesday, the lobby regulations that Lewis helped craft provide that a person who is registered as a lobbyist “is not eligible to serve on a board until the expiration of three years after the date that the person ceases to be registered.”

In their letter, Bangle and Moulinet say they believe “that not only would it be a violation of City Code to appoint Mr. Lewis, but also be considered a severe conflict of interest for him to serve on the Charter Review Commission.”

Following the vote appointing Lewis, Moulinet told the Austin Monitor he would be filing a complaint with the city’s Ethics Review Commission. Moulinet added, “This is a serious violation.”

Alter said she had not seen the RECA letter until Thursday and it had not called her office to register the objections.

But Lewis told the Monitor in an email, “I am not currently registered or required to register. Nor am I paid to lobby. I have never been paid to lobby. I, however, did register in 2016 as a protest of all the developers and engineers who were lobbying for lots of money and not registering.”

He added, “RECA is malicious and owes me an apology. … The council resolution on the CR Commission, passed some months ago, requires members to not currently be registered as a lobbyist.”

On his lobby registration form, Lewis listed a number of municipal questions on which he would be lobbying, including “lobby reform.” He listed his nonprofit organization, Save Our City Austin, under the section that asks “if the registrant is an agent or employee of a lobbying entity.”

Alter added language preventing registered lobbyists from serving on the Charter Review Commission during the June 22 Council meeting, but that language makes no reference to former lobbyists.

Moulinet told Council members it was especially troubling to him that they would appoint Lewis, who, because of his work on the ethics ordinance, should have known better than to accept an appointment.

No member of Council commented on Lewis’ appointment, but Mayor Steve Adler asked City Attorney Anne Morgan to weigh in on the legality of the appointment.

Morgan said it would be legal for Lewis to serve on this particular commission. She then turned to Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter, who said that the Charter Review Commission “would be a task force under the city code.”

Because it is appointed for a specific purpose, it does not fall under the legal definition of a city board or commission, Carter said, noting that it ends once its purpose is completed. Council voted unanimously to approve all the appointments on this week’s agenda, including Lewis.

Moulinet was not satisfied with city legal’s explanation.

Moulinet told the Monitor, “If you look at the city website, the word commission is used over and over, so as a citizen, how am I supposed to know that it’s a task force? Not only that, but it is dealing with the most important thing our city needs dealing with – the rule of law, so if you’re going to exclude lobbyists, which are the items we’ve been working on so hard, the most important commission would be a commission that governs the rule of law and advises the Council on the rule of law.

“So Council Member Alter’s appointment is expressly prohibited in the lobbying ordinance that all of us spent so much time working on … and sitting there for hours and years, and creating a situation where if you’ve been registered as a lobbyist you cannot serve on a board or commission until three years from the expiration,” which for Lewis would be May 2020.

In his email to the Monitor, Lewis concluded, “By the way, today, the law is clear they have to register and most of them don’t. RECA also is opposed to any ban on lobbyists serving on committees, but then hypocrisy is synonymous with RECA.”

Clarification: Following the publication of this story, Lewis contacted the Monitor to say he did not write the 3 year lobbyist service ban. It was written years ago, he said.

Photo by John Flynn.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

city charter: The city’s written grant to govern

Real Estate Council of Austin: 501(c)6 for "more than 1,700 commercial real estate professionals representing the top leaders in the Central Texas business community." RECA is a donor to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent of the Austin Monitor.

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