Escamilla's Deal: Changing the Subject?

David Escamilla
David Escamilla

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 24, after nearly two years, Travis County Attorney David Esca­milla announced a formal settlement of the Texas Open Meet­ings Act investigation of City Council members. Escamilla released agreements signed with all the relevant council members (all current members but Kathie Tovo, plus her Place 3 predecessor Randi Shade), under which the council members acknowledge past practices but commit themselves to more careful future policies and procedures. "We found probable cause," said Escamilla in a press release, "to believe that multiple violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act had occurred." The statement also said that city administration had failed to provide sufficient legal guidance to council members. Escamilla also emphasized, "This was never an investigation into corrupt practices. There was never even a hint that any of the city council members were involved in self-dealing" or acting "in order to benefit a friend or political supporter."

A settlement of the case against City Council members always seemed like the logical, if not inevitable, conclusion. Escamilla was in a tough political spot: In a town dominated politically by Democrats, a prosecution of the most visible set of capital-D public officials would not be a popular move – and looking the other way would bring criticism from local Repub­licans, as well as those who dominate state boards and commissions (as Escamilla has said, there are more meetings subject to TOMA rules held in Travis than in any other Texas county). For council members, avoiding prosecution was the only happy ending – with a loss at trial, any council member with higher political ambitions would have to abandon them.

As Escamilla's investigation stretched deep into its second year, word started to leak that a settlement was near, and that was confirmed this week. The announced deal rests on the compromise that council members won't face prosecution so long as they promise not to repeat earlier practices and waive the statute of limitations – should Escamilla subsequently find that new violations have occurred, he can prosecute using evidence that dates all the way back to April 2010.

This could be a hard win for Escamilla. Local "progressive" City Hall gadflies, as well as right-wing nutters, will likely accuse the county attorney of, at best, looking the other way while Austin burned, and, at worst, being in on the conspiracy from the start. It could also be a hard win for council members. Though no one will go to jail or pay any fines, they don't entirely pull themselves out of the fire. And the outcome seems certain to alter permanently, for good and ill, policies and practices at City Hall.

As we reported in the Newsdesk blog Oct. 18, two of the statements released by members stood out. The first was from former CM Shade, who lost her seat in the wake of a handful of not-so-kind (and not-so-illegal) emails that emerged in the wake of the scandal. "I never knowingly conspired to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act," she wrote, "and over this past summer I entered into an agreement for deferred prosecution in an effort to put the investigation behind me." (See her whole statement posted below.)

Council Member Bill Spelman's Wednesday statement to In Fact Daily was even blunter. "Of course, I'm happy that none of us will be charged. It's good to have that behind us," he said. "The better news is that this may help us change the subject. In addition to cooperating with Mr. Escamilla's well-meaning inquiries, the Coun­cil and the city staff have had to spend thousands of hours over the last year and a half defending against 'gotcha' journalism and conspiracy theories. With the end of the county attorney's investigation, perhaps we can all turn our full attention to governing a great city, and solving problems like traffic, housing, and jobs."









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