Did Campaign Ad Cross the Line?

Ah, the finer print of election laws

On March 26, City Council Place 1 candidate Jason Meeker asked Rick Culleton to step down as his campaign treasurer because, Meeker says, he was concerned that the business owner was too busy to devote sufficient time to the campaign. That may have been a fortuitous change of staff, because it appears Culleton doesn't know campaign finance law too well. In the April 4 issue of the Chronicle, the regular full-page ad that Culleton places every week for his Discount Electronics was in part promoting Meeker's candidacy and may have run afoul of Texas and city of Austin election law.

While most of the ad touted electronics merchandise, the top one-eighth was headlined "It Is Time to Clean Up Austin's City Hall" and contained text both blasting incumbent Lee Leffingwell for accepting money from developer attorney Richard Suttle and other employees of Armbrust & Brown, "the law firm retained by Wal-Mart to represent Lincoln Properties," and urging voters to "Vote for Jason Meeker."

Culleton believes local companies will be threatened by the proposed Wal-Mart at Northcross and has previously used his ad space to support the Responsible Growth for Northcross group, of which Meek­er is the former spokesman. But this time, the use of the ad may have crossed several legal lines. Chapter 253 of the Texas Election Code specifically prohibits political contributions or expenditures by a corporation. Texas secretary of state records seem to indicate that Discount Electronics is a subsidiary of First E-Commerce Inc., which is owned by Culleton. However, although the ad was originally booked under Discount Electronics, Culleton then set up a separate account under his own name to pay for the political portion of the ad.

Another possible violation seems clearer. Chapter 255 says that political advertising must contain language specifically identifying as such, and it must contain the name of the person or political committee that paid for or authorized the ad. Culleton's ad contained no such language.

Culleton is out of the country, and the Chronicle was unable to contact him.

Meeker told the Chronicle that he had no knowledge that Culleton was going to promote his campaign in the ad – which, if true, would probably take him out of the legal loop and avoid city requirements that political advertising state whether a campaign has agreed to comply with the Austin Fair Campaign Ordinance, which makes public funds available to campaigns.

Asked if he had concern that his campaign may have violated the law in some way, Meeker replied: "Well, of course I do; I'm extremely concerned that there was any violation, especially since Rick is now my former campaign treasurer. ... I don't want anything done that has anything to do with my campaign that isn't on the up and up. I know if Rick has done anything incorrect, he'll make good on it."

Leffingwell was surprisingly mild in his response to the possible violation. "I won't take action myself," the council member said when asked if he planned to file a complaint. "Something ought to be done about it, because to just have laws out there and people not pay attention to them – I was kind of shocked by it. ... You've got to assume they didn't know what they were doing, because they wouldn't have done something that blatant. But of course, that's no excuse. You have to know what the laws are."

Meanwhile, Meeker is going after Leffingwell on campaign finance issues as well, focusing on ethical rather than legal angles. On Tuesday, Meeker issued a press release calling for the incumbent to return $9,300 in campaign contributions received from lawyers at Armbrust & Brown. The donations were received Nov. 20-30, 2007, the week after arguments in the RG4N lawsuit ended.

"Accepting this money at the time that he did sends a terrible signal to citizens," Meek­er says in the release. "Leffingwell claims at candidate forums to be on the side of neighborhoods. But how can he accept money from the very lawyers who were engaged in a lawsuit against thousands of Austin residents trying to defend their neighborhoods against irresponsible development?

"It's a gross display of profound political tone-deafness. Leffingwell did nothing to stop the lawsuits from going to trial, and the timing of these campaign contributions is very hard to justify. It stinks and he needs to return the money," writes Meeker. The release highlights one donation in particular: $600 from J. Bruce Scrafford and his spouse. Scrafford was Lincoln Properties' chief counsel in the trial.

"If there's any suggestion of some kind of quid pro quo, I totally reject that," Leffingwell told the Chronicle. "There never has been, never will be. ... My philosophy has always been that when somebody makes a contribution to my campaign, that means they're supporting me, it doesn't mean I'm supporting them."

The City Council election will be held May 10 (early voting runs April 28-May 6); Allen Demling is also on the Place 1 ballot.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council election, Jason Meeker, Rick Culleton, Lee Leffingwell, Responsible Growth for Northcross, Election

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