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Photo by Richard Smith for City Council

Ethics commission notifies D8 candidate of campaign materials violation

Tuesday, November 1, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The Ethics Review Commission will file a letter of notification for a City Council candidate who neglected to put required disclaimers on some of his campaign materials.

At last week’s meeting, the commission held the preliminary hearing for the complaint by one-time Texas House candidate Julie Oliver against Richard Smith, who is running for the District 8 Council seat in next week’s election. Oliver filed the complaint in September after seeing that Smith’s campaign materials – specifically door hanger flyers, his website and yard signs – failed to disclose that the campaign has agreed not to comply with the contribution expenditure limits of the Austin Fair Campaign Chapter of city code.

Smith’s representative at the hearing, John Buxie, said Smith updated his website and printed new signs and flyers days after learning of the violation. He also took the extra step of printing corrected decals to affix to large road signs and any yard signs the campaign could locate lacking the following disclaimer: “This campaign has not agreed to comply with the contribution and expenditure limits of the Austin Fair Campaign Chapter.”

The commission voted 9-0 to find that a violation occurred without having a final hearing because Smith’s campaign acknowledged the violation.

On the question of the penalty Smith should face, commissioners quickly decided against issuing a letter of reprimand – the most serious action – and then debated between a letter of admonition or the least severe letter of notification.

Oliver said while Smith did move quickly to remedy his campaign materials, the initial oversight that led to the infraction deserved the intermediate-level penalty.

“Mr. Smith is an attorney and campaign finance laws, although they can be very complicated, before you step into the space to run, you really should research them,” she said. “I found it pretty quickly when they sent me this packet and I was thumbing through it very quickly. I think a reprimand is too harsh, especially since he’s taken immediate action to rectify the situation … and I imagine it was a considerable expense to do that so quickly.”

The vote for the letter of notification was 6-3, with Chair Luis Soberon and commissioners Mary Kahle and Donna Beth McCormick voting against.

Commissioners’ differing opinions on the penalty focused on how much responsibility Smith should face for a mistake that they agree could have been made by a campaign manager or volunteer.

“If somebody is going to run for an office, then surely he has a campaign manager who should have been informed of the rules,” McCormick said. “You make a list of everything that you need to do, and I’m one who watches to see that yard signs are put up the right way. If you’re going to run, you make sure that you’re prepared.”

Commissioner Michael Lovins agreed with Smith’s campaign view that the violation amounted to a de minimis matter according to the guidelines of the Texas Ethics Commission.

“This is about as small of an error as you can make for a provision of the code that, frankly, is silly, though it is in the code,” he said. “The lowest level that we can give I think is the appropriate level, especially when within days of being notified that it’s been pointed out he spends the money to go and fix it.”

Kahle agreed on the relative insignificance of the infraction, but said that those running for office should be held to a consistent standard.

“I do agree that it’s minor, but I would also say that’s the sort of thing I look for and notice on campaign materials,” she said. “It seems like if all of the candidates are expected to do that, then you do it.”

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. This story has been changed since publication to correct a misstatement that a letter of admonition will be sent. In fact, the commission voted to issue a less-severe “letter of notification.” 

 

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