Mike Lewis acknowledges his own social media posts doomed his candidacy to become chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party — but only after they were plastered on a shadowy website run by an anonymous foe.
If people should know who he was, Lewis said, they should also know who took him down and how.
This week, Lewis said he filed two complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission: one against party chair candidate Anne Wynne and another against Jovita Pardo, a volunteer for Wynne’s campaign and chief operating officer of GNI Strategies, a digital and political consulting firm.
In the complaints, which Lewis shared with the American-Statesman, he alleges the two women broke state election code by failing to register the political action committee that he believes created the attack website. A political action committee must file a document appointing a campaign treasurer once $500 has been spent or raised through contributions, according to state election code.
Wynne denied any connection to the anti-Lewis website, saying Lewis is “assuming some agent connection that I adamantly say doesn’t exist.”
The website that led Lewis to step down featured Lewis’ old Facebook posts, which highlighted his previous Republican stances, as well as one in which he shared a meme making light of the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby.
“I am embarrassed and ashamed by several of the statements from my past,” Lewis wrote in his Nov. 9 statement dropping out of the party chair race. After he dropped out, Wynne and Dyana Limon-Mercado, an executive with a Planned Parenthood advocacy group, jumped into the race.
The only indication of an author of the website was a line at the bottom that read: “Pol. Ad. Paid Keep Travis County Blue PAC.” But such a PAC is not registered, according to Texas Ethics Commission records.
Lewis alleges that Wynne’s campaign contracted with Pardo for website development and consulting services and did not report the expenditures. He alleges that Pardo created the TheRealMikeLewis.com, MikeLewisScrewedTheDemocrats.com and Lewis4Chair.com, a site with a similar URL to his campaign site LewisForChair.com that redirected to TheRealMikeLewis.com.
Lewis says the websites were hosted on a server that predominantly hosts websites for clients of GNI Strategies and Pardo, according to an online reverse IP search that Lewis cites. He also cites campaign finance reports that show that GNI was routinely paid more than $500 for web development services by other candidates.
Wynne told the Statesman she had no knowledge of who was behind the TheRealMikeLewis.com or the other websites.
Wynne said Pardo was an unpaid volunteer for her campaign. Wynne also said she has never employed GNI nor taken any donations from it. Asked about the “Keep Travis County Blue PAC,” Wynne said she’d never heard of it.
Pardo confirmed the PAC exists but said it has not met the spending threshold that would trigger reporting requirements, though she would not say whether she had any involvement with it. Pardo declined to comment further, saying, “We’ll see if allegations are taken up by the TEC.”
Katie Naranjo, CEO of GNI Strategies, said Wynne was not a client. Naranjo said she had nothing to do with the creation of the site, but she questioned Lewis’ motives for lodging the complaint.
“I just think it’s disingenuous (for Lewis) to say, ‘I’m sorry for what I said and now I’m going to try to go after the people who exposed what I’ve done,’” Naranjo said. “I think voters are allowed to be informed as to who they’re voting for.”
Lewis said he filed the complaint “to get the truth out there … so that we can move forward as a party and hopefully learn from this about tactics that could lead to division and how we can avoid them.”
Ethics legal experts said the case could hinge on whether any payments were made. Buck Wood, a lawyer and expert on Texas ethics laws, said a campaign or committee does not have to report a volunteer’s work if it did not pay for it.
The Texas Ethics Commission will review the complaint. Ian Steusloff, Texas Ethics Commission general counsel, said most complaints are resolved without the need for a preliminary review hearing.