The Austin Chronicle

Austin at Large: Steve Adler, Scandal Machine

The ex-mayor not only can afford, but has earned, the right to swat away pesky flies

By Mike Clark-Madison, January 13, 2023, News

At the top of the "Headlines" column, you can get the TL;DR summary of the latest and likely last alleged miscreance of our outbound Mayor Steve Adler, whom a lot of politically active people in Austin simply do not like. To go into more detail: On Dec. 1, the first day of early voting for the Dec. 13 Council run-off, Adler appeared at a press conference at City Hall, where he discussed election-related matters and encouraged all to vote. This included letting the audience – both live and via the signals of ATXN, the city's TV channel – know that he, a District 9 resident, planned to vote for Zohaib Qadri (and indeed to vote with Qadri), and that if he lived instead in D3 he would vote for José Velásquez "because of his history of community organization in that district." He did not endorse in the mayor's race but discussed it at some length, saying that "our city is fortunate to have two candidates [with] the experience and knowledge and skills to do this job, and both of them are ready. I've known both candidates for over 20 years; they are both friends of mine [and each] has the best interest of the city in their heart."

Normal sentiments expressed normally by a normal politician. What's at issue is whether Adler improperly used the resources of ATXN to produce and broadcast what could be seen as political advertising (and certainly could provide material for a real 30- or 60-second TV spot). That's the complaint from activist attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, who took the case and filed criminal complaints against Adler with the Texas Ethics Com­mission and with County Attorney Delia Garza, on behalf of Qadri's D9 opponent Linda Guer­rero and current D6 CM Mackenzie Kelly.

You Know It When You See It

Kelly told the Chronicle this week that she was alerted to the presser that morning and watched it in real time, after which she filed the complaint (with Aleshire's assistance). I'm going to guess that Kelly was not the only deeply invested city personage, elected or not, who had their office TV tuned to Channel 6 and saw Adler's press remarks, and that other viewers, maybe most viewers, had no idea that a crime was being committed right before their eyes.

It's not really in question that using public funds, such as those that pay for ATXN, for political advertising is a crime. In Aleshire's view, Adler, as a newsmaker with First Amendment speech rights, is at liberty to share his election endorsements in pretty much any other form that he chooses, but not on the city's own TV station. And the Ethics Commission, though toothless when it comes to holding sleazy actors accountable, does have an expansive view of what can constitute sleaze – claiming back in 2004, in an advisory opinion quoted by Aleshire, that even recording a similar conversation during a Council meeting could violate state ethics laws, if it were intended to influence the election.

There are questions of law here that are actually interesting to me, and perhaps to Aleshire: How independently can city-owned media like ATXN operate without running afoul of "public funds" restrictions? (It was also a question that came up when I was working in UT student media back in the Bronze Age.) Do Adler's comments really amount to an endorsement? I checked with the former state senator (guess who) who shepherded the last reworking of Texas' public information and open meetings laws, and there's no requirement that Adler be taped and televised just because he's mayor doing mayor things and the public has a right to know. So he perhaps should have saved the actual words "I'm voting for …" until after ATXN wrapped.

You Know He Doesn’t Care

Because Aleshire is the kind of guy whose friends have described him over the years as "a rolling barrel of steak knives," these criminal complaints and his associated media hits do not calmly point out that Adler made an ethical oopsie.

"Mayor Adler misused his position as Mayor to commandeer city staff, audio/video equipment, and website to engage in his own political endorsement of candidates," Aleshire notes in Kelly's complaint. The word "commandeer" is doing a lot of work there; I guess it's possible that all or some of the eight ATXN staffers named in the complaint felt bullied into staging and filming the mayor's press event, even though the channel tapes and airs or streams impromptu press events like this at least once a week. The difference in content between "Steve Adler discusses the election" and "Steve Adler says he's voting for Zo Qadri" is the difference between a subject line and a crime, as Aleshire has structured the matter.

Yes, Steve Adler is rich AF and can pay whatever fine is levied on him, and both Qadri and Velásquez won their races, and Aleshire is doing this because he doesn't like Steve Adler. And soon we will forget all about it.

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