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PAC seeks criminal charges for fire union, others for allegedly violating election law

August 8, 2018

A day after a political action committee sued the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association over allegations it illegally funded its charter-amendment petition campaign, the group is now recommending to county and state officials that the union’s president and others be charged for allegedly violating election and state law.

The bid for charges and lawsuit come as the City Council is scheduled to vote next week on calling a Nov. 6 election in which voters will decide on three proposed charter amendments that opponents say would be a blow to municipal government.

Securing San Antonio’s Future, a PAC run by political consultants Christian Archer and Kelton Morgan, is pursuing legal action largely based on San Antonio Express-News stories last month that determined that the fire union had failed to disclose a half-million dollars in payments to Texas Petition Strategies, a Buda firm that collected nearly all of the signatures submitted on the three petitions filed in April.

In a memo written by former Harris County prosecutor Alicia O’Neill, a formal request is made to District Attorney Nico LaHood and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate the firefighters association and its president, Chris Steele, its political action committee, Texas Petition Strategies and its owner, John Hatch — as well as “any related entity or party deemed to be culpable for unlawfully making and accepting prohibited expenditures and contributions” under several sections of the Texas Election Code and the Texas Penal Code.

“The San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association (Fire Fighters Union) and its president, Chris Steel (sic); the San Antonio Fire Fighters Political Action Committee (Fire Fighters PAC); as well as Texas Petition Strategies and its president, John Hatch, have admitted that they made and accepted prohibited contributions and expenditures of half a million dollars in violation of (several sections) of the Texas Election Code. As a result, they also may have conspired and acted to aid one another to Tamper with Governmental Records,” O’Neill wrote in the memo. “The spirit of the Election Code is to ensure fair elections in Texas. High dollar prohibited contributions absolutely undermine this system and rob Texans of fair elections.

“It is the duty of the local District Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office to ensure that no campaign finance violations have occurred and that the Fire Fighters Union Dues Account is protected from being used to make unlawful political contributions and expenditures.”

The PAC has requested that the DA either investigate or appoint a special prosecutor, and that the attorney general also investigate and determine whether prosecution is appropriate.

Neither Steele nor Hatch immediately returned telephone calls seeking comment.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg has been an outspoken opponent of the charter amendments and has vowed to oppose them as his top priority headed into November,

“I’m shocked but not surprised,” he said about the allegations of criminal activity. “Taxpayers, especially those who were deceived into signing these petitions by hired outside operatives, deserve to know what kind of criminal activity Chris Steele and his cohort have been conducting.”

The battle over the three charter amendments is expected to intensify. If the proposals make the Nov. 6 ballot and are approved by voters, the amendments would: cap the salary of future city managers and place term limits on them; lower the threshold for signatures on referendum petitions, increase the amount of time allowed for gathering them and remove prohibitions against overturning utility rates, tax levies and appropriations; and give the union sole discretion to declare an impasse on contract negotiations and force the city into binding arbitration, removing its right to seek relief in the court system.

Archer has acknowledged in the past that foes of the measures face an uphill battle because it’s more difficultto persuade voters to oppose issues rather than support them. But the PAC is prepared to raise big money — and spend it — on a campaign educating voters about the effects of the proposals.

Two of the three major credit-ratings agencies have said that the amendments could lead to downgrades of San Antonio’s AAA bond rating, which would mean taxpayers would end up spending more money on fewer projects.

Steele rejects such notions and says the amendments are about restoring power to citizens and taking control of City Hall.

Secure San Antonio’s Future has also asked a Bexar County district judge to block the City Council from calling the Nov. 6 election next week, arguing that the petitions should be tossed out because the fire union allegedly used union dues — not contributions to its PAC — to pay for the signature-gathering campaign.

The case could hinge on the question of whether it’s illegal for a labor union to spend union dues directly on political activity.

After the Express-News wrote last month that the union and its PAC had failed to disclose any payments to Texas Petition Strategies, the firefighters PAC hastily amended campaign-finance reports from earlier in the year, erroneously showing that Texas Petition Strategies had given more than $500,000 in in-kind contributions to the firefighters PAC. But Steele and Hatch both said afterward that the union had, in fact, paid TPS. Earlier this month, the union — not its PAC — filed a “direct expenditure” campaign finance report, indicating that the union had paid TPS and Facebook for previously undisclosed political advertisements.

Election-law expert Buck Wood has said that labor organizations are prohibited from making such direct expenditures on political activity, and the SSAF PAC has alleged both in its lawsuit and the memos to the AG and DA that the union has done just that.

Josh Baugh is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | jbaugh@express-news.net | Twitter: @jbaugh

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