News Roundup: Council Gets Dirty

Representatives engage in ... legal combaaaaaat!

Attorney Fred Lewis in front of City Hall
Attorney Fred Lewis in front of City Hall (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In this week's news roundup: Council votes to deliver a $600,000 settlement to the family of a young man wrongfully killed by APD; the mayor and council continues efforts to encourage Uber/Lyft drivers to get fingerprinted alongside other regulations; ethics investigators have a field day; and more...

Paying the Price: City Council on Thursday voted in favor of the city delivering $600,000 in settlement money to Billie and Larry Mercer, the parents of Larry Jackson Jr. (Mercer is Jackson's stepfather), who was shot and killed by now-retired APD Det. Charles Kleinert. The figure brings the total amount of dollars paid by the city to Jackson's family up to $1.85 million. In Aug. 2014, Council approved a $1.25 million settlement to be paid to Jackson's three children. Council voted 10-1 in favor of Thursday's settlement, with Don Zimmerman the lone dissenter. Kleinert was shot and killed by now-retired APD Det. Charles Kleinert on July 26, 2013 next to a foot bridge along the Shoal Creek running trail. Kleinert questioned Jackson when he attempted to step into the Benchmark Bank on W. 35th Street shortly after the bank was robbed. Jackson fled and Kleinert pursued him, eventually shooting Jackson in the back of the neck. Kleinert told Internal Affairs that the shooting was accidental. He was indicted for manslaughter but eventually had charges dismissed after he was able to transfer the case to federal court and claim sovereign immunity.

Elsewhere, in U.S. Federal Judge Lee Yeakel's court on Thursday, a jury ruled in favor of 53-year-old Hispanic male Pete Hernandez in a case alleging excessive force was used by APD when they suspected him of stealing someone's vehicle.. Hernandez, who filed suit May 28, 2014, was "violently forced" to the ground and beaten by APD officers Jesse Sanchez and John Sikoski, suffering a few broken bones, before officers discovered that he had nothing to do with the theft. The jury awarded him $877,000 for the officer's actions. – Chase Hoffberger

Incentives vs. Initiatives: The transportation network company debate is still dominating discussion at City Hall, as Mayor Steve Adler continues to try to chart a way out of the "binary choice" of Council either accepting as written the "citizens' initiative" ordinance submitted by the Uber/Lyft funded petition drive or simply placing the question on a May 7 ballot. The initiative election appears inevitable, but on Friday the mayor said he is drafting a revised ordinance to present to Council this week that would incentivize TNC drivers to be fingerprinted – though not require it, as is true of cab drivers and similar livery services – and make other revisions that he believes would satisfy most drivers and public safety advocates, while creating a mechanism to finance TNC regulation and other purposes (e.g., accessibility for disabled riders). The proposed ordinance would not appear on the May ballot, but would serve as a potential alternative in the public debate. On Thursday, Feb. 11, Council will again be hearing public testimony on the TNC matter, and presumably Adler's proposal as well, and Council will vote on how to proceed on setting the election. During a Friday press conference, the mayor said he has also told taxi-driver representatives and the taxi companies that he intends to address a "level playing field" for their industry in subsequent proposals. Follow City Council preparations here. – Michael King

Strange Crew [see update below]: Meanwhile, in the other petition campaign making news – a recall campaign targeting District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen – attorney Fred Lewis has filed complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission against the "Austin4All" political action committee, which last week announced via press release that its effort had gathered sufficient signatures in District 5 to force a recall election – although the group has yet to either submit the petitions to the City Clerk for verification or file required disclosures concerning its campaign [see update below]. Lewis filed four essentially identical TEC complaints against both the PAC and its named leadership, saying they had apparently violated the Texas Election Code "by knowingly accepting political contributions and making political expenditure over $500 without filing a campaign treasurer appointment." In his complaints, Lewis estimates that according to the group's ads on Craigslist and other available materials, Austin4All had apparently spent in excess of $10,000 on petitioners (at $16.50/hour) and related expenses, and that Rachel Kania (co-director and treasurer), Tori Moreland (co-director), and Joseph Basel (president) appear to have violated the law "individually and collectively." According to a Feb. 5 report in the Austin Monitor, Kania and Moreland are Republican presidential campaign operatives, and Basel is the CEO of the American Phoenix Foundation, a conservative organization notorious for secretly recording Texas legislators. (Basel himself was busted and pled guilty for being among conservative activists who pretended to be telephone repairmen while attempting to record staff members of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu.) Basel told the Monitor that the PAC is compliant with the law and that there is "no scandal, no secrets, just a new org doing work rather than playing the PR game." – M.K.

Meet the New Boss?: Fred Lewis also happens to be the only currently named party in an incipient campaign to “Manage Austin Better” – currently just an ornate web site for what declares itself an effort to “evaluate and replace” Austin’s current city management. Or, more elaborately, “We believe that Austin needs new senior management personnel – fresh, innovative, and effective city management to fulfill the full promise of our new 10-1 governing system. Manage Austin Better (www.manageatxbetter.com) advocates for an immediate, rigorous, performance-based, 360-degree evaluation of Austin’s current management and then for replacing them.” The site recites 12 reasons for replacing the current administration, ranging from “poor planning” for growth, through affordability, gentrification, traffic, etc., all the way to very recent controversies such as the “Pilot Knob development” (for which Mayor Adler has just accepted blame), specifically citing the Zucker Report on Planning and Development Review as evidence. In short, the list includes every city problem that has beleaguered the city, City Council, and Austin residents for at least the last decade, and lays them all at the feet of the current city management. Asked if this web-based effort is simply a thinly disguised effort to persuade Council (via petition) to fire (unnamed) City Manager Marc Ott, Lewis insisted the goal is “not personal,” only an effort to find “innovative, more progressive city management.” Last week, the web page reported that “a diverse group of citizens” is behind the effort, but only Lewis was listed, behind email addresses to request more information. Last week, Lewis said he would have to get permission for listing other supporters, and could recall only attorney Michael Hebert and architect and neighborhood advocate Jeff Jack as supporters. A few days later, he added Roy Waley, Kristen Hotopp, Frances McIntyre, Mike Levy, Brandon Reed, Brian Rodgers, Bill Bunch, Brad Parsons, and Ed English. He also insisted that the effort has nothing to do with promoting a “strong mayor” city government (an immediate online rumor). He reiterated the goal of a full management review, concluding, “We believe a thorough assessment should result in the replacement of the City Manager.” – M.K.

Dukes Under Fire: If there's a member of the Travis County Democratic House delegation that's most likely to be dubbed a lightning rod, it's Rep. Dawnna Dukes. The Texas Tribune has reported that she is currently being investigated by the State Auditor's Office after her former chief of staff Michael French complained that she had forced staff to work on the upcoming African American Community Heritage Festival. French told the Tribune that Dukes had instructed her staff to put aside regular constituency and legislative tasks in favor of organizing the event, a fundraiser for Huston-Tillotson University. In rebuttal, Dukes took to Facebook to pen a lengthy defense of herself, and a furious attack on French, who she called "a recently terminated employee and severed lobbyist", while dubbing his actions "blackmail." She then took a similarly bullish tone with the Austin-American Statesman, saying that "any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a really good carpenter to build one.” In her version of events, French was doing a substandard job, and was going to face a negative 90 day review, so he used the issue to put pressure on his boss. However, French told the Tribune that he told the rest of staff to stop working on the festival only after he was advised by a lawyer within Speaker Joe Straus' office that Dukes requiring them to work on the event could violate state statutes relating to abuse of office.

This is another administrative headache for Dukes, who faces another chapter of her long history of failing to get her campaign finance reports squared away. On Jan. 15, she filed her semi-annual campaign finance report with the Texas Ethics Commission. In fact, she filed two: One covering the period July 1 to Dec. 31 2015, which was due that day, and one covering the six months prior to that, which was actually due six months earlier. That's not the first time she's had problems: In 2014, she actually faced an ethics complaint from Libertarian challenger Kevin Ludlow over failing to file by the deadline. Then in 2008 she was sued by Stephanie Hale of S.W. Hale Consulting LLC for failing to pay fees for organizing (guess what) the 2005 African American Community Heritage Festival. – Richard Whittaker

Cruz Versus CNN: The rolling moral quagmire that is Texas Senator Ted Cruz's presidential election campaign has a new enemy: CNN. It all comes down to a mailer that Cruz's campaign sent out the night of the Iowa caucus, saying that "the press" was reporting that fellow GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson was on the verge of suspending his campaign. The email continued, "Please inform any Carson caucus goers of this news and urge them to caucus for Cruz." This was followed by robocalls saying that Carson was out after Iowa, and not to waste time voting for him. However, this was not true, and Carson fired back at the Cruz campaign for using "dirty tricks" to suppress his support. Rather than apologizing fully, Cruz blamed "a CNN news story that CNN wrote," claiming that for three hours the new network had reported that Carson was on the verge of suspending his campaign, and that they later ran a correction. However, CNN never reported that Carson was about to suspend, and certainly never issued a correction for a story they never ran in the first place. In a statement, the network responded, "The fact that Senator Cruz continues to knowingly mislead the voters about this is astonishing." Well, not that astonishing: Cruz's campaign has already been lambasted by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate for sending out a mailer claiming that Iowans are graded on whether they attend caucuses or not. Pate wrote that the claim " misrepresents the role of my office, and worse, misrepresents Iowa election law." – RW


"Strange Crew" Update 7:30 p.m.: After this item was posted, we received an unsigned email apparently from someone at "Austin4All" objecting that (1) Joseph Basel is not the president of Austin4All PAC, but heads a different (unidentified) organization; and (2) that Austin4All PAC has indeed filed a campaign treasurer designation. (1) Since we were citing a complaint to the Texas Ethics Commission, we reported the allegation against Basel as filed in that complaint; (2) Friday afternoon, Feb. 8, Austin4All filed a CTD with the City Clerk (posting time unclear) designating Rachel Kania as treasurer – considerably after the PAC had begun funding its petition campaign and collecting signatures (according to its own press releases). We've requested additional information and documentation, and as we learn more, we'll report it. – M.K.

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