The Austin Chronicle

Place 1: Who's on first ... and who's paying for it?

By Lee Nichols, May 2, 2008, News

With friends like Rick Culleton, Place 1 City Council candidate Jason Meeker may not need any enemies.

For the third week in a row, Culleton – not a candidate – has been the most controversial player in the current City Council Place 1 campaign. Last week, Culleton, the owner of Discount Electronics and former treasurer of Meeker's campaign, ran more ads expressing his preferences in the May 10 election. This follows two previous ads in the Chronicle that, by omitting language identifying who paid for the ads and seeming to have a connection with his corporation, appeared to violate state law and drew a formal ethics complaint from a supporter of Place 1 incumbent Lee Leffing­well (see "Complaint Filed Against Meeker," April 18).

The new round of ads, both in the Chronicle and on television, raised even more eyebrows – partly for their message, partly for yet more legal issues. The message included a cannon blast against a candidate one might have assumed Culleton would support. Like the earlier ads, the new ads (print and television) criticize Lef­fing­well and support Meeker. But they also attack Place 3 incumbent Jennifer Kim and advocate for challenger Randi Shade. That's surprising on its face, because both Meeker's and Culleton's forays into city electoral politics grew from their activism with Respon­sible Growth for North­cross, which is fighting the construction of a Wal-Mart at the moribund mall (Meeker was RG4N's spokesman and Culleton is a financial supporter). Since Kim has declared herself staunchly in RG4N's corner, the ad was a shock.

"I guess everyone had kind of misunderstood why I was doing this," Culleton says. "It's not that I'm a Jason Meeker supporter. I barely know Jason. I got to know him through the RG4N mess. But that just made me pay attention to what our City Council was doing, and I didn't like what I saw. ... The issues that I have with some of these council members are not related to that at all.

"I don't think her votes have represented small business in the way that she said she was small business when she ran for office in the first place. I don't like the way that she tends to ignore the issues and constituents. Just to give you an example, during RG4N ... when I e-mailed and called every council member, I got responses from everyone [except Kim]. I might not have liked what they had to say, but I at least got a response. When I would e-mail Jennifer Kim, I never got a response from her. When I would call her office, I would never get a call back. Yet the e-mail address that I e-mailed her from was added to a spam list to invite me to some picnic she was putting on."

Kim said she was surprised by Culleton's ad, "because I've been very supportive of RG4N, including my campaign manager [Paige Hill, who] is one of the founders of RG4N, and according to them, I've been a helpful council member on this issue, and I'm still working with them on it." Kim pointed out that at an April 8 RG4N candidate forum, she easily won a straw poll of attendees, with Shade coming in third behind another challenger, Ken Weiss.

"His credibility is quite questionable," Kim said of Culleton, referring to the complaints surrounding the ads. "Everyone that wrote me a letter on that issue got a response, a standardized response that I sent back to many, many people. ... Whether or not his spam filter got it or something, that could be his problem. Technology is not a perfect thing."

Shade, for her part, didn't exactly jump for joy at receiving Culleton's endorsement – in fact, she issued a press release last Friday distancing herself from him. "I want to make clear that I have never met with or talked to Mr. Culleton about my campaign, and have no previous association with him," the statement read.

"I think that was the appropriate response for her," Culleton replied. "One, it was accurate – we don't know each other and haven't spoken. My support came a little bit later, because I wanted to see a little bit more of what she was about. Yes, I wanted Jennifer Kim out of there, but I wanted to make sure we had a good replacement. Now I think Randi is a good replacement. ... My involvement in this has become somewhat controversial, and I'm sure she didn't want to get wrapped up in that mess."

Then there are the legal issues. First, Daily Texan photographer Michael Bicknell complained that his photo of Leffingwell and Kim in the Chronicle ad – doctored to make it appear the candidates are standing in front of a Wal-Mart, when in fact they were announcing a city service for low-income residents – which Culleton designed himself and provided to the Chronicle ready for print, was used without permission (an apparent violation of Bicknell's copyright). Moreover, the TV version of the ad used another unauthorized photo, this time a head shot of Meeker by Chronicle photographer John Anderson. When Anderson made phone calls to complain about that unauthorized use, he learned that the TV ad was produced by Stanford Research, the consulting firm of Jason Stan­ford. That raised further questions, because last we knew, Stanford was Jason Meeker's campaign manager; his involvement appeared to violate the ban on independent expenditures being coordinated with campaigns. But, we were surprised to learn, Stanford and Meeker officially parted ways about a month ago. Meeker says poor fundraising made him decide to cut costs, and he's now managing his own campaign.

In fact, he sounded genuinely surprised when told of Stanford's involvement: "Could you repeat that for me?" After taking a moment, Meeker said, "These are third parties doing things with their own political agendas. Some of it helps me; some of it hurts me. Clearly, they are interested in defeating Lee Leffing­well and Jennifer Kim. But it's not solicited or endorsed by me personally or my campaign officially."

For his part, Stanford said he has no concerns about the legality of his working for Culleton, and he was apologetic about the photographs, the use of which he blamed on a young assistant "raised in the Internet age" and therefore not familiar with copyright laws.

That isn't good enough for Leffingwell: "The fact that Jason Meeker's former campaign manager has been working with Jason Meeker's former campaign treasurer to run a $20,000 negative campaign benefiting Jason Meeker makes a mockery of Austin's campaign finance laws," he said in a statement. "I don't think anyone would believe that Jason Stanford and Rick Culleton quit Jason Meek­er's campaign on one day only to decide to run an expensive negative campaign benefiting Jason Meeker on the next day."

It wasn't good enough for Shade either, who distanced herself even further from Culleton. Noting that at one point her own campaign manager, Mark Nathan, had briefly retained Stanford's services, she released another statement on Tuesday reading, "while I appreciate Mr. Culleton's support, I am making a public appeal to request that he and Mr. Stanford please discontinue their campaign on my behalf. It's critically important that voters trust my integrity, and any appearance of a link between my campaign and their independent effort is unacceptable to me. I will also be returning Mr. Culleton's unsolicited campaign contribution."

Add to the list of dissatisfied: Mike Bliz­zard, a public relations consultant who filed the ethics complaint regarding the first two ads. "[I]t may not even be necessary for Meeker to be personally aware of this activity for him to be implicated in this," Blizzard wrote to the Chronicle. "These people worked for him and represented him. They are part of his campaign and he's ultimately responsible for his campaign's actions."

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