Williamson County Road Bond flier "a slick political ad coming out the week of the election."
December 18, 2002
A taxpayer-funded county brochure sent to selected Williamson County voters days before the November election might have violated state ethics laws, according to a complaint filed this week with the Texas Ethics Commission.
The complaint was filed by a Democratic Party precinct chairman, David Fedesna, and claims that a brochure about $350 million in road bond projects constituted an illegal use of public funds for political advertising because of its timing.
"In my view, this is a political ad . . . a slick political ad coming out the week of the election,"
said Fedesna, who said he received the mailer the day before the election.
But County Commissioner Greg Boatright said the objective was to educate residents on the progress of the road projects, not to influence the elections.
"It was something we'd been working on since August," Boatright said. "It was just coincidence that it came out at that time."
The county spent about $9,300 to produce and send the brochure, which was mailed Oct. 28 to the 15,745 households with voters who cast ballots in the March primary elections, county officials said. The county judge and two commissioners were up for re-election Nov. 5, although only Commissioner Frankie Limmer faced an opponent.
But Fedesna said the flier's content was a central issue in the race between Limmer and Democrat Louis Repa.
"I'm not doing this out of sour grapes. . . . I just don't like the idea of my taxpayer's money being used to pay for their political advertisement, win or lose," said Fedesna, a Cedar Park resident.
The brochure features a map with the status of all the road projects; it also has quotes from each member of the Commissioners Court explaining how the road bond money has been used to ease traffic in the fast-growing county.
Buck Wood, a longtime election lawyer who previously served as the head of the secretary of state's elections division, said the self-promotional nature of the quotes is questionable.
He said the contents were "clearly intended to cast the incumbents in the best light." The appearance of political influence could have been avoided if the brochure had been issued by a nonpolitical figure, such as the county engineer, Wood said.
"Sending out something like this with quotes by candidates and paid for by the county right before the election is highly questionable," he said.
He added that targeting the mailing to voters who are "active enough to vote in a primary" and sending it days before the election also is suspicious.
Boatright said the decision to send it to voters rather than all taxpayers was driven largely by
"It would be very costly to mail it to 70,000 households, and we thought it was important to send it to people who actually participate in the voting process," Boatright said.
A similar mailing was sent last year to those who voted in the 2000 general election, in which the project was approved.
The Texas House of Representatives and the U.S. Congress have established restrictions on using public money for mass mailings during designated periods before an election. But no such constraint exists for local governments, said Karen Lundquist, executive director of the Ethics Commission.
However, public money cannot be used for political advertising.
To determine whether the brochures are political advertising, Lundquist said, the commission would consider the purpose of the mailing and whether it expressly advocates for an issue or candidate.
Fedesna's complaint is the third allegation of legal or ethical violations stemming from the road bonds. The attorney general's office is investigating whether a public relations consultant, Amos "Pete" Peters, overbilled the county for work on the bonds.
Another ethical complaint revolves around irregularities in reporting contributions to the road bonds' political action committee, Roads Now.
The Ethics Commission proposed an undisclosed resolution last month to the committee treasurer, Mike Robinson, and his lawyer, but the response, if any, has not been made public.
© 2002 Austin American-Statesman: