PAC opposing charter amendments sues city, union to block election

August 7, 2018

A political action committee sued the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association on Tuesday, alleging it illegally funded a petition campaign for three proposed charter amendments and asked a state district judge to block the proposals from going before voters on Nov. 6.

Secure San Antonio’s Future (SSAF) also sued the union’s political action committee and Texas Petition Strategies, the Central Texas firm that earned some $510,000 to manage the petition campaign.

The city of San Antonio was also named as a defendant because the council is scheduled next week to call the November charter amendment election. SSAF is seeking an injunction that would prohibit council members from taking any action.

“State law is very clear on this point,” said philanthropist and developer Gordon Hartman, who is serving as treasurer for Secure San Antonio’s Future. “Our lawsuit contends that the union leaders funneled money illegally to a Hays County company with blatant disregard for the law and that cannot be allowed to stand.”

Union boss Chris Steele said in a telephone interview that the fire union has done nothing wrong.

“Everybody involved has assured me that we followed the law,” he said, accusing City Hall of attempting to strip away democracy from voters. “I think the most important thing is that we know that the power brokers and the politicians down at City Hall will do everything they can to deny the people their voice and a vote.”

The lawsuit, filed by lawyer Mikal Watts, seeks millions of dollars in damages — from the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association, the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Political Action Committee and Texas Petition Strategies, the Buda firm that handled the petition campaign — for both SSAF and the state of Texas.

SSAF alleges in its filing that the fire union, a Texas labor organization also known as “Local 624,” its PAC and Texas Petition Strategies violated several areas of state law, including illegally spending union dues on political expenditures, making illegal contributions or expenditures in the name of another, and conspiring to spend union dues on political activity.

The lawsuit is primarily based on reporting last month by the San Antonio Express-News showing that the local fire union failed to disclose more than a half-million dollars in expenditures it had made on its “San Antonio First” petition campaign to gather the requisite 20,000 signatures on separate petitions calling for the three charter amendments.

After the newspaper reported the lack of disclosure, the union’s PAC erroneously amended a handful of its monthly campaign-finance filings with the Texas Ethics Commission, claiming that Texas Petition Strategies had made a half-million in-kind campaign contribution to the fire union PAC.

On the heels of those error-riddled reports, Steele and John Hatch, founder of Texas Petition Strategies, both confirmed that the union had paid for the services.

Hatch did not immediately return a call seeking comment for this story.

Earlier this month, the union filed a “Direct Campaign Expenditures Campaign Finance Report” with the TEC, acknowledging that it had spent $510,000 on services from Texas Petition Strategies in February and March, and another $730.66 on Facebook advertisements the newspaper had determined had not been disclosed previously.

That disclosure would appear to help the case by Secure San Antonio’s Future, which is arguing that the association cannot make a direct expenditure on political activity.

Attorney Buck Wood, a Texas election law expert, has previously said the fire union could not spend union dues directly on political activity. In an interview about the union’s initial failure to disclose its expenditures to Texas Petition Strategies, Wood said the union appeared to be in hot water either way.

“You don’t get to go spend half a million dollars on a campaign and not report it anywhere,” Wood said in July. “If you spent it out of your PAC, you clearly had to report it, and if you didn’t spend it out of your PAC, it’s an illegal campaign contribution by a union. Either way, it’s really bad.”

Critics say the fire union’s proposed amendments would be a devastating blow to local government. If passed, 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 fire 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.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who’s been a vocal opponent of the proposed charter amendments since the fire union and its allies began the San Antonio First campaign, said in a statement that voters deserve to know the source of the funds spent on the petitions.

“I am disappointed, although not surprised about the apparent lack of transparency regarding the funds used to pay for the petition drive,” he said. “The legal case will have to run its course, but San Antonio deserves to know where the half million dollars came from and whether the signatures gathered by out-of-town political professionals were properly collected.”

Nirenberg said he’ll continue to oppose the amendments if the council ultimately votes next week to call the November election.

“If these proposed charter amendments reach the ballot,” he said, “I will fight to defeat them and defend our city’s future.”

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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