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Commission hears preview of complaint against Voices of Austin in truncated meeting

Wednesday, January 20, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

An audio problem during last week’s meeting of the Ethics Review Commission cut short what was promising to be a contentious hearing for a complaint against a local nonprofit.

Political consultant Mark Littlefield, who also brought a complaint against Save Austin Now, alleged that Voices of Austin, a 501(c)(4) organization, sent a political mailer that failed to disclose donors. 

“Because they’re hiding behind this 501(c)(4),” Littlefield said, “you’ll never know who their donors are, or how much money they are spending.”

Before the audio cut out on the city’s virtual meeting software, forcing the meeting to adjourn, both parties made their cases to the commissioners, previewing a future redo of the preliminary hearing.

“I think this is probably the most important complaint that I have brought,” said Littlefield. “I know I’ve brought a lot of them.”

Littlefield said that the October 2020 mailer to Austin voters was illegal because, as a paid political communication, it didn’t disclose the organization’s top five donors as required by law.

The main question was whether the communication was in fact political.

“They’re going to say that … this is not campaigning,” Littlefield said, “unless there were the magic words ‘don’t vote for, vote against.’”

Roger Borgelt, counsel for Voices of Austin, argued that the mailer was not political. “There’s simply no type of advocacy or political expression going on (in the mailer) that would trigger the need to either register as a political organization, as a political committee or file any sort of political report.”

Voices of Austin, Borgelt said, simply intends to educate voters. “It is not designed for the purpose of advocating for or against any particular candidates or measure or proposition,” he said. 

“We cannot tell people how to vote,” Borgelt read from the organization’s mission statement, “but we will tell them the truth.”

The commission will take up the preliminary hearing again at its next meeting on Feb. 10.

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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