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Ethics, Schmethics: When Candidates Trade Accusations, Who’s There to Decide?

As election day nears, ethics accusations become common on the campaign trail.
Photo by Liang Shi for KUT News
As election day nears, ethics accusations become common on the campaign trail.

On Monday, mayoral candidate Brigid Shea held a press conference accusing her opponent Lee Leffingwell of violating the city’s campaign finance laws. Leffingwell’s campaign denies the charge. And as of yesterday afternoon, the Shea campaign had not filed a formal complaint with the city’s Ethics Review Commission.

Surprising? Not exactly. Candidates accusing each other of ethics violations is a move many campaigns make as election day approaches.

In last year’s bitterly contested Place 3 Austin City Council run-off, incumbent Randi Shade filed an ethics complaint against challenger Kathie Tovo. And in the 2009 mayoral election, Lee Leffingwell alleged fundraising impropriety on the part of opponent Brewster McCracken.

“You can’t buy something nobody’s selling,” says Peck Young, Director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies. He says such accusations – usually directed to the city’s ethics commission – are relatively common in city elections.

Young says “this game of saying, at the 11th hour, when somebody has difficulty even responding to a charge, [that] you’re going to accuse them of something – that’s just using ethics as a club. That’s not doing anything to protect the integrity of the system. That’s just making political hay out of the fact that you’ve got something you can make look bad.”

But even if an alleged ethics violation is more than just a political attack, the city charter doesn’t provide any real enforcement.

Ted Siff was a member of the city’s Charter Revision Committee, which made its recommendations to city council in late February. He says the ethics commission has power on paper, but doesn’t have the right tools.

“Our recommendation is to give the ethics review commission power to hear evidence and make recommendation to the city attorney as to whether or not the violation has occurred,” says Siff. Giving the ethics commission some teeth was one of several changes the Charter Revision Committee recommended.

But Peck Young is skeptical about the need to give the ethics commission more power – because he says at the end of the day, it’s all about politics.

“You can give all the teeth you want to an ethics body, or to any other quasi-judicial body or judicial body. They’re not going to be sucked in to a game of ‘gotcha’ by a political campaign. So, it doesn’t matter whether the ethics commission’s got teeth or not.”

Young says he wouldn’t be surprised to see even more accusations of ethics violations by candidates today and tomorrow, before election day on Saturday, May 12. 

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