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Ethics commission considers examining possible ‘dark money’ violation

Friday, September 21, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Members of Austin’s Ethics Review Commission are eager to examine a potential violation of the city’s “dark money” campaign finance law that has generated press attention and speculation in city political circles in recent weeks.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Commissioner Debra Danburg read from a recent Austin American-Statesman investigation into the funding of a political action committee behind a November ballot proposition calling for an efficiency audit of City Hall. The story found the PAC and the sole nonprofit that funded it were organized by the same person – Michael Searle, a former aide in the office of Council Member Ellen Troxclair – but the source of the funding from the Austin Civic Fund nonprofit is unclear.

In media coverage of the proposition issue Searle has said that donors to the nonprofit offered their money with the understanding that their identities would not be disclosed. He also said the donors weren’t aware their donations would be put to use bankrolling the efficiency audit measure.

Danburg and other commissioners said there appears to be violation of the city’s 2016 law that attempted to remove so-called shields to identify the source of certain campaign funding. In question is whether the commission would be able to take action against the nonprofit or whether Searle, as its chief organizer, would be the subject of an investigation.

Another question raised during the discussion is whether the petition drive leading to a ballot question is a portion of the political campaign process covered by the law, or whether it only comes into play once a ballot question has secured a place on the ballot.

“I think Council thinks it’s pretty black and white, but apparently these nonprofit groups don’t think it’s very clear,” Danburg said. “My end goal is to support what I think the Austin City Council intended when they passed it, which is that secret people should not be playing Austin politics. I share that goal, and from the article, it sounds like that goal is being violated.”

The commission asked the city’s legal department to look into the purview of the law, and what kind of jurisdiction the commission has over the matter. The law calls for a $500 fine in the case of violations, which many commissioners said they see as a small penalty for offending organizations.

The matter will be discussed again at the commission’s Oct. 10 meeting and considered for a possible resolution to conduct an investigation into the matter.

“There’s a whole lot of question marks here including a couple big ones about whether we’ve got the latitude to cover this,” Chair Ben Stratmann said. “I’m surprised someone hasn’t said something to us in individual capacities or given us a letter or something.”

There was also some consideration given to whether the commission should move quickly on the issue since the proposition in question will be decided in November.

“If you are opposed to Prop K, then you probably want to speed this up because if they’ve violated the ordinance or the spirit of the ordinance, I’m sure opponents of Prop K would love to point to that,” Stratmann said.

Commissioner Peter Einhorn joined several others in seeing the potential violation as separate from the November election, and he pushed for the item to not be considered before the ballot measure is decided.

“If this is an issue about dark money, and not about the petition question, then I don’t feel compelled to deal with this before the election. I think it’s cleaner to not worry about the election at all, let the voters of Austin deal with the petition question,” he said. “For us the issue is dark money, and that’s an issue before or after an election, whether it passes or doesn’t pass.”

Photo by John Flynn. 

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