Tracking Down the Austin PAC Behind the Ann Kitchen Recall Petition
When you Google image search Rachel Kania and Tori Moreland, you'll find each of them in similarly staged photos, each wearing a collared shirt and pearls, each standing in front of what looks to be a tall wooden fence – as if they're keeping someone out, but in a friendly way, like a genial neighbor would.
On one of the two women's Facebook pages, there’s a photo where one is sitting on the other’s lap, so I assume they’re friends. I am obsessed with knowing more – but not about them. About their organization.
Kania and Moreland have named themselves co-directors of a political action committee (PAC) called Austin4All. (According to their Twitter profiles, Kania works for Rand Paul's now-finished campaign for president, while Moreland works for CFB Strategies, a company that builds apps for people running campaigns, according to its website).
Austin4All came to my attention on Jan. 20, when a local political consultant, Mike Blizzard, tweeted a photo he snapped after a petitioner knocked on his door. (It’s important to mention that Blizzard consulted on Kitchen’s first successful campaign for the state legislature). The photo of the petition bore the name of the PAC:
Blizzard, who follows local politics, also mentioned that the petitioner's pitch included some misinformation about Council member Kitchen opposing food trailers.
“I asked him, ‘What has she done to food trailers?’” Blizzard said. “He didn’t have a good answer, and he eventually pulled out a little script, and he read it to me, and it was about the barbecue smoke scrubbers controversy that was at council a few months ago. And I’m not sure that ever even passed in any form. To my knowledge, Ann Kitchen had nothing to do with it.”
(Council member Sabino “Pio” Renteria was behind that proposed ordinance, which would have mandated scrubbers in smokestacks at restaurants that smoke meat. But it was defeated by a vote in a Council committee meeting in August.)
According to Blizzard’s photo of the petition, the group behind the recall attempt is a PAC called Austin4All. State law requires PACs to leave paper trails – first and foremost, these groups must file a treasurer appointment form before spending or accepting more than $500. At that time, Austin4All had filed nothing with the city or the state. The PAC officially filed Monday, submitting this form:
At the time I talked to Blizzard, the PAC had listed their treasurer on the petition: Rachel Kania. With the help of my editor, I found a cell phone number for her on a press release for Bill Worsham's run for Austin City Council. She answered, but told me she was running into a meeting and to send questions via email. I have yet to receive a response to these questions:
More than a week passed before I heard more. On Jan. 28, I received an email from an Austin4All email account with news that a “major announcement” would come after the weekend.
I called Kania, wanting more information about how this announcement would be made. She spoke with me briefly, telling me she was busy, but that this would be an in-person press conference and that they were finalizing a time and place. As it turns out, the news came Monday in an email. In it, the PAC announced that it had collected enough signatures to recall the council member’s election, and that they would submit these to the city clerk. The City Clerk has yet to receive this petition.
That same day, neighbors and colleagues held press conferences where they expressed support for Kitchen in the face of Austin4All’s alleged recall petition. With news that they'd collected enough signatures, I followed up with the PAC.
The group responded to only some of my questions (the email was unsigned, so it’s unclear whether this was Moreland or Kania). When I asked, “What’s with all the secrecy?” Austin4All wrote back: “There is no secrecy. Councilmember Ann Kitchen clearly does not represent the majority of Austinites’ view that open access to ridesharing improves the quality of life for all Austinites, including riders and drivers, and the overwhelming success of our petition reflects that. But Austin4All is about more than just ridesharing; we’re interested in taking political action whenever necessary to bring pro-growth, pro-innovation, & pro-technology leaders and policies to Austin.”
Here is their response in full:
I followed up, copying the questions they had not answered, plus a new one: “Is Joe Basel, founded (sic) of American Phoenix Foundation, a donor?” You might remember Basel from the legislative session, when he and others with the conservative news organization gathered undercover video of lawmakers. I’d been tipped off that he might be involved, but couldn’t get in touch with him by phone or by email. Austin4All did not respond to my second round of email questions and so the case went hush until Feb. 5, when I got this email:
On Friday, local attorney Fred Lewis filed four complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission against Austin4All, Rachel Kania, Tori Moreland and Joe Basel for failure to file documentation for the PAC. Here’s that complaint against the PAC as a whole:
While Kania and Moreland have identified themselves as co-directors of the organization, Basel has been less forthcoming about his role. In an email to KUT’s reporting partner the Austin Monitor, he wrote: “As you know, I’m involved with the effort, just like hundreds of other Austinites (thousands if you include all the voters of District 5 who are involved)… Sorry I can’t speak for the org. No scandal, no secrets, just a new org doing work rather than playing the PR game. If you are looking for the special interest and corporate funded story, you’ll have to stick to Ann Kitchen and her husband.”
I reached out to Austin4All by email, and Moreland wrote me that actually, their PAC documentation was on-hand at the city.
But Bob Guz, who works in the City Clerk’s office and handles campaign finance fillings, told me the city did not have this document. I emailed Austin4All again, asking for clarification. They told me, with or without the filing, they were in compliance because they had yet to receive any donations or spend any money as a PAC.
Earlier in the week, I'd learned from a colleague at the Austin Monitor that the wording of several Craigslist ads seeking petition signature-getters (paying $16.50/hour) was very similar to the pitches neighbors had heard from recall petitioners with Austin4All.
I called the number on those ads, and the receptionist Melissa Perez with Express Employment Professionals told me that a group called Austin4All had hired them to gather folks for those petitions. Austin4All denied working with this company. I wrote back, asking about the employment agency, plus the earlier email exchange where Austin4All told me “[t]he majority of our donors are Austin residents investing their time and energy to collect signatures.” Certainly, donors can donate energy and time, but in my mind, "donors" usually means money.
Then my Friday got weird. I reached out to Basel (who had been named in the ethics complaint) on Twitter, while hopping on and off the phone with city officials trying to track down what I was being told was their PAC filing that had been turned in that day. He told me the PAC filing was in the Mayor’s office. The City Clerk’s office said that would never be true – that once a campaign finance filing is turned into them, it does not leave their office. I had spokespeople for the Mayor and Bob Guz in the City Clerk’s office running around. As a spokesperson for the Mayor later told me, the PAC filing was sent in an email on Friday. But, those forms need to be turned in in person – which the PAC did Monday.
Since Friday, I haven’t tried to talk with Kania, Moreland or Basel. I’ve asked several times when they are planning to turn in their recall petition, but haven’t received word. My head feels a bit lighter.