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Voices of Austin censured for breaking campaign finance laws

Wednesday, March 17, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The nonprofit Voices of Austin violated city law by campaigning against Proposition A last year, the Ethics Review Commission ruled on March 10. The commission voted to censure the organization, the most severe rebuke at its disposal.

Nonprofits are not allowed to advocate for or against ballot measures or political candidates, but Voices of Austin did just that, the commission said. Mailers and social media posts from the group strongly criticized Prop A in the runup to the 2020 election.

While the communications did not explicitly tell voters not to vote for Prop A, Chair Luis Soberon said it would be “very hard” to interpret them as “anything other than an appeal to oppose a ballot measure.”

Voices of Austin violated another city campaign finance law by “almost certainly” spending more than $500 on political messaging – the limit for nonprofits.

Roger Borgelt, counsel for Voices of Austin, insisted in past hearings that the organization simply educates voters on the issues, something that is well within its right as a 501(c)(4). But Borgelt admitted during a preliminary hearing that “there may have been a technical violation of city code,” a statement that compelled commissioners to hold a final hearing.

Political consultant Mark Littlefield, who brought the complaint shortly after last year’s election, accused Voices of Austin of using its nonprofit status to campaign without disclosing its donors. Nonprofits don’t have to disclose their top five donors or their expenditures, unlike political action committees.

Littlefield had hoped the commission would force Voices of Austin to reveal its donors, but the commission does not have such authority. Littlefield warned that if the city keeps letting nonprofits campaign without punishment, “it’ll make our democracy that much weaker in the city of Austin.”

The nonprofit also violated city law when Borgelt failed to show up at last Wednesday’s final hearing. Soberon called Borgelt’s absence “disrespectful” and tied it to a pattern of disrespect toward the commission that he said “is not OK.” Soberon said he “plan(s) on doing something about it.”

The commission has little power to enforce campaign finance laws beyond written reprimands. Though the commission has discussed asking City Council to grant it more teeth, such as the ability to impose significant financial penalties, nothing has come of it so far.

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