Ethics panel: Zimmerman violated campaign finance rules

A day after Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman was found guilty of violating the city’s campaign finance requirements, he criticized the ethics complaint as “bogus” and “politically motivated.”

Zimmerman failed to file two required end-of-year campaign finance documents. On Tuesday night, the city’s Ethics Review Commission voted unanimously to send a formal letter of reprimand because Zimmerman showed “disregard” for the city’s regulations.

But Zimmerman, the council’s most conservative member, pointed out that three other council members also hadn’t submitted some of these required reports. “What about the other council members who did not file?” he said.

This time next year, Zimmerman said, he expects the ethics dust-up to become fodder for direct mail pieces against him. “The reason people do these things is for political ammunition for the next campaign,” he said.

It’s rare for a council member to become the target of an ethics complaint outside the campaign season. And a council member hasn’t been issued a letter of reprimand from the city’s ethics commission in at least a decade.

The reprimand is largely symbolic. The city’s ethics commission has limited enforcement powers and cannot issue fines. It can recommend an ethics violation for criminal prosecution, but the commission declined to do so in Zimmerman’s case.

Ethics Review Commission Chairman Austin Kaplan said the panel hopes the letter of reprimand will send a message to other council members who didn’t file the reports to comply with the city’s campaign finance laws.

The missing campaign finance documents are called “bank reconciliation” and “campaign debt reconciliation” reports, and they are supposed to be filed along with a more comprehensive Jan. 15 report, which Zimmerman did file, disclosing final expenditures, donations and remaining funds.

Most galling to the Ethics Review Commission was that Zimmerman failed to add those reconciliation reports after being told they were missing. Austin resident Mark Walters, who filed the ethics complaint against Zimmerman in July, said he notified Zimmerman as far back as February that he hadn’t filed the correct reports.

After the ethics panel’s decision, Zimmerman conceded on Wednesday he would file the reports. According to his attorney and online records, Council Members Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen and Sabino “Pio” Renteria were also missing one or both of the reconciliation reports. Kaplan said after Tuesday’s meeting that there were no plans to launch ethics investigations of the other council members.

Zimmerman didn’t come to the hearing, to the disappointment of several Ethics Review Commission members who had requested he attend. Kaplan noted that a police chief and a mayor have previously come before the panel upon its request.

Kaplan said Zimmerman’s absence was demeaning to the commission and hamstrung its ability to get to the bottom of the ethics allegations.

Zimmerman said he had a “prior engagement” related to constituent issues and was in Seguin. “I didn’t get back in to Austin until later that evening,” he said. Zimmerman attorney Jerad Najvar said he also advised Zimmerman he didn’t need to attend because it was a “technical” issue and there wasn’t a factual dispute.

Najvar’s defense of Zimmerman focused on the “ambiguous” and “confusing” reporting requirements. He has also noted that the information on the end-of-year reports Zimmerman failed to file is available on the quarterly campaign finance report that Zimmerman did file.

Tuesday’s decision was a victory for Walters, a freelance law clerk who has filed several complaints and lawsuits against various entities since being released from state prison. The Ethics Review Commission declined last month to pursue Walters’ first complaint against Zimmerman, in which he accused the council member of violating city rules with a Facebook post criticizing the U.S Supreme Court’s ruling in June legalizing same-sex marriage.

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