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Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison receives reprimand for campaign finance violations

Friday, December 13, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Six months after midyear campaign finance reports revealed that Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison violated fundraising laws, the Ethics Review Commission voted to send the Council member a letter of admonition.

Harper-Madison collected $3,695 in campaign funds between January and March of this year. As Council members are prohibited from raising money outside a one-year window that ended in December, she was in violation of the ordinance.

At the Dec. 11 meeting of the Ethics Review Commission, Harper-Madison reiterated that the violation was an innocent mistake and emphasized that when she became aware she had violated the ordinance, she scrambled to correct it. “Within 24 hours,” she told commissioners. “Every single dime was returned.”

Donna García Davidson, who was representing Travis County Republican Party Chair Matthew Mackowiak, who filed the complaint, said, “We are not trying to allege that anybody was intentionally flagrant or had ill motives in doing this.” Nevertheless, she reminded commissioners that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

With the Council member’s admission that she had committed a violation and commissioners conceding that the violation was likely unintentional, the commission voted 6-1 to issue level 2 reprimands against Harper-Madison. Commissioner Pedro Villalobos voted nay.

The maximum penalty that could have been levied was a class C misdemeanor charge, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500 for each contribution.

In the letter of admonition, the commission called for the Council member to be mindful of campaign finance rules moving forward and to revise her January and July campaign finance reports to accurately reflect the campaign’s debt as well as the reimbursement of the funds donated after the fundraising period.

Harper-Madison, who stepped out during the commission’s deliberations, told the Austin Monitor that sometimes “you have to go through a couple hiccups to get it right.” However, she said of the judgment passed by the commission, “It sounds to me like a fair enough delivery of a decision by way of the commission.”

García Davidson told commissioners it was not just the late donations that indicated a violation of city ordinances. She explained that there were inconsistencies between the Council member claiming debt at the end of her campaign and what was filed in the reports.

Commissioner Betsy Greenberg similarly pointed out that there was money in the bank at the end of the campaign and that the campaign listed expenditures. “You said you didn’t spend the money and yet there are political expenditures on the July form.”

“I have no idea what this represents,” Harper-Madison said. Andrew Cates, her legal representation at the commission, noted that the expenditure was not necessarily paid with the late contributions given to the campaign.

Harper-Madison told commissioners she took out a personal loan to pay back the donors who gave between January and March of this year and that this will be reflected on her amended filing in January. The city charter permits candidates to solicit donations for reimbursement after leaving office or from contributions received during a subsequent campaign.

Commissioner Greenberg pointed out other errors on the filings, including one that did not have a campaign treasurer listed.

Faced with making a decision at a preliminary hearing where the parties do not present all the evidence for a case, the commission struggled to decide between administering a level 1 letter or notification, or a level 2 letter of admonition to the Council member.

After three votes, the commission settled on a letter of admonition with commissioners J. Michael Ohueri and Nathan Ryan recusing themselves from the vote.

Commissioner Robin Lerner noted that although she believed the violation was unintentional, it is nevertheless important for politicians to remain accountable. “I do think the devil is in the details on financial disclosures and reporting,” she said.

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