An Austin City Council Member has been accused of violating the city's campaign finance rules after failing to file two required forms.
The city's Ethics Review Commission voted to send Don Zimmerman a formal letter of reprimand on Oct. 13 due to allegations that the city council member showed "disregard" by not filing required campaign finance documents, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The commission also voted to require Zimmerman to file the reports, though it classified his alleged discretion as minor and thus, decided not to seek any sort of prosecution. The forms document candidates' final expenditures, donations and remaining funds. Zimmerman, meanwhile, has called the accusations "absurd."
Law clerk files two separate complaints against Zimmerman
The two separate complaints that led to the commission's vote were filed by Mark Walters, a law clerk. Walters claimed that Zimmerman did not fill out a bank reconciliation statement and an annual reconciliation of campaign debt – each are required end of the year forms for city council members. In response, the city councilman called Austin's campaign finance rules "clumsy and confusing," according to the news outlet. He explained that he relied on his attorney to determine which forms to fill out, and has since replaced him. He added that his spending is clear.
"Zimmerman, has called the accusations 'absurd.'"
The Ethics Review Commission had requested that Zimmerman show up to the meeting where the vote was held, something he did not do, which may have influenced commission members' opinions, according to the Austin Monitor. Austin Kaplan, the commission chair, said that he would have been less inclined to vote such a severe sanction if Zimmerman had chosen to show up to the meeting as he was requested to.
"I think his actions demean what this commission does," he told the media outlet.
Council members not often reprimanded for such violations
It's not often that council members are targeted for such violations outside of campaign season, the Austin American-Statesman noted. Kaplan told the news source that the last time a letter of reprimand was issued to a sitting council member was August 2011. The reprimand is a symbolic punishment for the most part – the commission does not have the power to issue fines to the council members. Kaplan hopes that the vote will remind other council members of the importance of filing required campaign finance forms.
Jerad Najvar, Zimmerman's attorney, has argued that regulations regarding the finance forms are ambiguous and that the forms council members are required to file are repetitive, the Austin Monitor reported. He explained that such laws cannot be enforced.
"It would be an unconstitutional burden, potentially, that somebody file additional paperwork that doesn't serve any purpose," Najvar told the news outlet.
Zimmerman's attorney suggested there was no need for him to attend the meeting
In addition to explaining that the rules were vague, Najvar noted that a number of other candidates also did not file required forms, according to the Austin Monitor. Four current council members had not filed one or both of the forms that Zimmerman failed to, the attorney explained. However, his argument didn't sway the opinions of the council members. They're curious as to why Zimmerman still hasn't filed the documents almost four months since the first complaint was filed.
"He still hasn't done anything about it – that gives me a lot of concern," Robert Stratmann, one of the commissioners, told the news outlet. "After multiple Ethics Review Commission meetings and 10 times as many news stories."
Najvar also explained that he was the one who suggested to Zimmerman that there was no need to attend the hearing, noting that he did not want the "process to become the punishment." He added that the facts weren't in dispute, it was a technical issue, meaning that there was no reason for Zimmerman to be there. However, that suggestion may have actually led to a worse punishment for the council member. He skipped a preliminary hearing in September, prompting the commission to request his presence at the latest meeting.
"Several other candidates also didn't file the forms."
"This commission has never had a witness, let alone a council member, refuse to [show up]," Kaplan told the Austin American-Statesman.
The council member also noted that Zimmerman's absence was detrimental to the commission's ability to get to the bottom of the issue. The commission – including Zimmerman's own appointee – agreed unanimously that the council member had violated the city's campaign finance rules by failing to file the documents.
Following the meeting, Kaplan indicated that he would like to see the commission receive the power to be able to issue subpoenas, something that would have to be approved by the city council members.