Pro-Cop Fake-Oversight Petition Drive Still Raises Questions
A strange mistake?
By Austin Sanders,
10:53AM, Thu. Dec. 8, 2022
Nearly a week after being called out for their deceptive petition drive, a group known as Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability is still collecting signatures for an alternative to the Austin Police Oversight Act that the Equity Action coalition has already qualified for the May 6 local election ballot. As the Chronicle reported Dec. 1, the VOPA has some apparent links to the Austin Police Association, which opposes Equity Action’s APOA, so it’s not surprising that they’re seeking support for a different ordinance. However, canvassers who began in November to collect the 20,000 signatures to put it on the ballot told signers that they were Equity Action and their ordinance was “almost the same” as the APOA, not an attempt to thwart it.
Following our story, campaign organizers with VOPA began providing canvassers with an accurate information sheet that disclaimed any involvement by Equity Action, noting that the APOA is already set for the May ballot and that “the current petition being circulated by VOPA is not connected to the previous petition or the group circulating it.” That doesn’t mean the canvassers, who are getting paid a few bucks per signer, are not still telling fibs – videos shared with us since our Dec. 1 story show canvassers saying this campaign is needed because the APOA didn’t qualify, or that VOPA has no website because it wants to make the ballot first. (The site we reported on earlier at saferaustin.com was taken offline Friday afternoon, Dec. 2.)
It remains a mystery who exactly is behind VOPA and who is paying to collect signatures, but some clues have surfaced. Last week, we reported that a GOP-aligned consulting firm called Accelevate appeared to be running the field operations; several canvassers told us they were hired by Trent Pool, who is operations manager for Accelevate. This week, we heard from others who said they reported to Trent and Trey Pool, the CEO of Accelevate. When the Chronicle reached out to Accelevate for comment, we were asked to contact spokesperson John Egan by phone or email. Egan is also listed as the point of contact on the new fact sheet distributed to VOPA canvassers (with a different phone number than that provided by Accelevate). Egan has not responded to our inquiries at either number, at his email address provided to us, to emails sent to Accelevate, or to a different political consulting firm called Nasica Tactical, where Egan works as executive director.
Nasica Tactical is part of a larger consulting enterprise, Nasica Murphy, which has worked on high-profile Texas Republican campaigns. Local attorney Peter Kennedy, representing Equity Action (he’s also legal counsel to the Chronicle) sent a cease-and-desist letter to Egan over the improper use of the coalition’s name, which also puts Egan and Nasica Tactical on notice to preserve their files on this campaign should Equity Action pursue future legal action. The group has also filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, whose spokesperson confirmed the matter is under review.
So who hired Accelevate and Egan? The APA’s political action committee had apparently helped create the website; VOPA’s PAC paperwork, filed with the city on Nov. 2, lists James Wood as its treasurer. Initially, when we messaged him last week, he said he was sick but would be available to talk the following day. He then asked that we email questions. We did, but he did not respond. Tuesday, Dec. 6, we messaged him again asking if he’d like to talk, but he replied, “no thank you,” and as of press time, Dec. 7, has not responded to our emailed questions. Wood has notable connections to law enforcement. He works as a personal injury lawyer at his own firm, Line of Duty Law, which frequently represents cops hit by drunk drivers. The firm’s Instagram and Facebook pages are filled with posts featuring police officers (in his FB cover photo, he’s posing with former APA President Ken Casaday), he’s listed as the vice president of the Police Activities League of Austin, and he’s married to Manor Police Chief Ryan Phipps.
Wood also appears to be close to Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk; sources told us they hang out frequently and a Facebook post shows that in April 2019, Wood and Phipps co-hosted a baby shower for Cronk and his husband, Brendan Bujold. There is no evidence to suggest Cronk has any involvement in the faux APOA campaign; in fact, the city’s Labor Relations Office is pushing for a meet and confer agreement with the Austin Police Association that would be quite different from the one called for in the new petition campaign. “The City Manager only became aware of the initiated petition after recent media reports,” a city spokesperson told us. “The Manager has made it clear he is committed to establishing and safeguarding police oversight provisions.”