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Settlement leads to dismissal of Ethics Review case against Save Austin Now

Monday, June 14, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The Ethics Review Commission voted last week to dismiss the complaint pursued for eight months against the Save Austin Now nonprofit, after the initial complainant withdrew his charge as part of a settlement agreement he reached with the group.

Political consultant Mark Littlefield informed the commission that he had withdrawn the complaint in accordance with several other terms and conditions shared during the meeting. Save Austin Now is the 501(c)4 group that launched a successful petition drive to recriminalize homelessness in the city, and Littlefield brought his complaint last year because the group engaged in political activity without disclosing its donors.

As part of the settlement, Save Austin Now agreed to refrain from engaging in petition-gathering efforts – though its related political action committee can do so – and will cease operations by the end of the year. The group will also file a 990 tax form for 2020 with the IRS by mid-October of this year, and will donate $30,000 total to homelessness services groups Caritas, Salvation Army and Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

Littlefield agreed to dismiss his case against the group and not have any involvement in any possible future actions against the group related to the same charges.

The commission voted 7-0 to dismiss the complaint, with Commissioner Betsy Greenberg abstaining and joining several other commissioners in her disapproval of having cases taken out of their hands if the initial complainant reaches a settlement with the other party.

“I’m really uncomfortable with this, saying we can’t take a vote and they’re not admitting responsibility for the violation,” she said. “Now you can give $30,000 and I understand you can raise that much in two or three days with a GoFundMe campaign, and compared to what was raised in this (petition drive) … this is only the first one without any disclosure of who was paying for it and I feel like this settlement is wrong.”

The complaint and review process in the Save Austin Now issue has moved slowly since kicking off early this year. Commissioners and the group’s legal representatives butted heads at the May meeting over when to schedule a final vote on the matter, with commissioners criticizing the group for failure to produce evidence to rebut Littlefield’s claim in a timely manner.

The Ethics Review process carried on well past the May 1 vote that Save Austin Now enacted, with voters supporting the measure to reinstate laws against sitting, lying and camping in public places.

While some commissioners said they felt like they’d been used as a tool to move toward the settlement, Littlefield said his goal from the start was to uncover who funded the group and bring daylight to the petition and funding process.

“It’s been eight months and it’s been very frustrating and I imagine equally more frustrating for you all the last eight months to go through this process. What I wanted was for Save Austin Now to stop doing this … and now there’s $30,000 going to organizations that are serving people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “We’re giving up the Ethics Review Commission deciding which level of letter they’re going to send to Save Austin Now. I’m not saying this is the best outcome, but I thought a lot about this over the last two days about whether to sign it … I can’t tell you what the right thing to do is, but I did sign it.”

Commissioners discussed the possibility of recommending to City Council that the rules governing the Ethics Review Commission be amended so the group can choose to pursue cases on its own rather than relying on outside complaints to move things forward.

“The point of this is we have limited jurisdiction and if Mr. Littlefield decides to withdraw his complaint for any reason at all it takes it out of our hands,” Commissioner Michael Lovins said. “We’re essentially sitting here as judges and we can only hear and decide on live cases and controversies. And if Mr. Littlefield withdraws his complaint there is no longer a live controversy between the two, and we have no power to say anything other than, ‘OK.’”

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