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Ethics commissioners say nonprofit acted in ‘bad faith’

Friday, April 16, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Ethics Review Commission expressed frustration Wednesday that nonprofit Save Austin Now has not yet brought evidence to refute an ethics complaint filed against it, delaying a final hearing that was set for the meeting.

Counsel for the nonprofit said they needed more time to provide the evidence that they had promised was coming at last month’s evidentiary hearing. But commissioners were skeptical.

“It’s very, very frustrating to have people claim they can’t produce things that they committed to producing and they agreed to,” said Commissioner Mary Kahle, “and that … a quick search of your files should be able to produce.”

“Can we just declare that it is a bad-faith lack of cooperation?” Commissioner Debra Danburg said.

The complaint, brought by political consultant Mark Littlefield, alleges that Save Austin Now overstepped the bounds of its 501(c)(4) status by engaging in political activity and not disclosing donors while gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to reinstate the city’s camping ban. Having succeeded in getting the initiative on the May 1 ballot, the nonprofit now mainly operates through a political action committee of the same name. 

“There was a commitment at the last meeting to provide that information,” Commissioner Betsy Greenberg said. “I think the commission’s time, the city legal’s time or outside counsel’s time is all being wasted because of this. And to me, that’s a big deal.”

“In the real world, a judge would have held them in contempt by now,” Danburg said.

“Oh, let’s do that,” Greenberg said sarcastically.

Chair Luis Soberon noted that the commission does not have “the ability to sanction procedural deficiencies, so to speak.”

“What I’m hearing is frustration that it’s taking as long as it’s taken, and I very much sympathize with that frustration,” Soberon said. “It should not take half a year to resolve a complaint.”

The complaint was filed in October 2020, and hearings for the complaint have been subject to several delays. 

Despite their frustrations, commissioners granted the postponement and voted to hold a final hearing on May 12. Evidence from both sides must be presented by May 3.

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