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Save Austin Now works ethics commissioners’ last nerve

Friday, May 14, 2021 by Amy Smith

The nonprofit that launched the successful campaign to recriminalize behavior related to homelessness in the May 1 election has again tried the patience of the Ethics Review Commission, which on Wednesday voted to postpone a final hearing on a complaint filed against the group last October.

Unlike previous times, however, Save Austin Now, which holds 501(c)4 status, argued against a postponement, citing a 60-day time limit the commission has to hear a case once it is determined sufficient evidence exists to move forward to a final hearing. The commission made the determination in January.

“We’re already three days past due,” Save Austin Now attorney Chris Gober told the commission. “We’re beyond the statute of limitations for the commission to take up this matter.”

The irony was not lost on ethics commissioners in view of the number of times the commission had granted the nonprofit’s requests for continuances and postponements.

“Mr. Gober is a really, really good attorney, but they have asked for so many extensions that for him to rely on that argument does not work for me,” Commissioner Debra Danburg said. Other commissioners offered similar sentiments. “I’m not swayed by that argument,” Commissioner Mary Kahle said, noting that the commission has consistently accommodated Save Austin Now’s schedule.

Political consultant Mark Littlefield filed the complaint against Save Austin Now, alleging that the nonprofit violated its 501(c)4 status by engaging in political activity without disclosing its donors, all while collecting signatures to have the city’s camping ban reinstated via a ballot initiative. The nonprofit secured enough signatures to qualify for placement of the initiative, known as Proposition B, on the May 1 ballot, which voters overwhelmingly approved. The group officially began operating as a political action committee once it obtained ballot eligibility.

Commissioners expressed similar frustration with the nonprofit at an April meeting where Save Austin Now failed to produce any evidence to rebut the allegations outlined in the complaint.

With a lack of rebuttal evidence, commissioners specifically requested that Save Austin Now submit its expenditures before the next scheduled final hearing on June 9. At that time, commissioners will also hold a preliminary hearing on a related complaint, filed by Joe Cascino, alleging campaign finance violations by the nonprofit.

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