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Split commission rejects complaint against Garza

Friday, November 20, 2020 by Jo Clifton

The ethics complaint against Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza will not move forward to a final hearing after receiving the thumbs-up from just five members of the city’s Ethics Review Commission. A majority of the commission, or six members, was needed to take the complaint to a final hearing on whether she violated city ethics rules when she paid her State Bar dues with city funds. Two members recused themselves, so the question was left up to the remaining nine, who heard the matter during a lengthy meeting Wednesday night.

The complaint centered on Garza’s decision to pay her State Bar of Texas dues, as well as other fees related to her law license, from money in her office account in 2018 and 2019.

The city auditor’s office filed the complaint against Garza, who is now Travis County attorney-elect, after receiving a complaint from a citizen. They hired outside counsel to conduct the investigation and appear at the hearing.

Travis Casner, with the Weaver, a CPA and advisory firm, and attorney Ross Fischer explained the results of their investigation to the commission.

There was no dispute about most of the facts. In 2015, her first year on City Council, Garza requested that her law license be listed as “inactive” and indicated on her request that she did not “hold a position that requires a law license.” She paid $75 out of her own funds to move to inactive status. She continued on inactive status until August 2018, when she requested that a city credit card be used to pay $300 in bar dues to the State Bar of Texas. In June 2019, the city paid $240 for her dues and $215 for dues to the Austin Bar Association.

Fischer noted that he had talked to other Council members who hold law licenses and they paid their bar dues from personal funds. Garza disputed this, but didn’t offer any concrete examples. Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen have both said that they use personal funds for their bar dues.

Garza told investigators that her decision to reactivate her law license in 2018 was because immigrant families were being detained, separated and sometimes deported as a result of raids being conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She said she was interested in trying to help some of the families that had been detained. Investigators noted that one group visit to the immigrant detention center in Karnes City was the only activity related to pro bono representation that they could find. According to the report, Garza was unable to participate in other pro bono work due to time constraints with her City Council duties.

Garza told commissioners that her district is 70 percent Hispanic, and that the primary reason she reactivated her license was to help her constituents. After President Donald Trump was elected, she said, “there was a lot of fear” among her constituents about what might happen to them. “After you get the license, you have to take CLE (continuing legal education),” she said, which helped her with policy questions. “The more you can learn as a Council member to serve your constituents,” the better. But her basic argument was that she had gotten the license to do pro bono legal work.

The question commissioners had to consider was twofold: Did Garza use her official position to secure a special privilege for herself or others, and did she use city facilities, personnel, equipment or supplies for private purposes, except to the extent such is lawfully available to the public?

Garza’s attorney, James Cousar, argued that there was no way to stretch the law to include the second category, because the allegation did not include use of city personnel, equipment, supplies or facilities. Five commissioners rejected that interpretation of the law and voted to move forward to a final hearing, while four voted against moving forward. On the question of securing a special privilege, only three commissioners voted to move forward on that complaint.

Commission Chair Luis Soberon and commissioners Betsy Greenberg, Mary Kahle, Raafia Lari and Donna Beth McCormick voted to move forward to a final hearing on the complaint. Commissioners Debra Danburg, Kenneth Tray Gober, J. Michael Ohueri and Robin Lerner voted against the motion. Commissioners Pedro Villalobos and Nathan Ryan recused themselves.

Nathan Ryan is a member of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor. He recused himself as the appointee of Council Member Garza.

On Thursday, Deputy City Auditor Jason Hadavi told the Austin Monitor via text: “Our office appreciates the time and contributions of everyone on staff, the commission, and Mayor Pro Tem Garza and her counsel. We received a complaint and followed the requirements as they are laid out in City Code to deal with it. We obviously believed we obtained sufficient evidence to support a code violation, which is why we filed the complaint. But we respect the process and the commission’s decision to not move forward. A majority of the voting commissioners agreed with us, but it wasn’t sufficient to move to a final hearing given the commission’s rules. So the matter is closed and we move on.”

This article has been changed since publication to clarify that Weaver is a CPA and advisory firm. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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