City ups legal spending to $255K in Zimmerman campaign finance case

Don Zimmerman (KXAN)
Don Zimmerman (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Council members are set to approve potentially spending an additional $75,000 Thursday for legal representation in a federal campaign finance case filed by former City Council Member Don Zimmerman.

The spending increase would bring the city’s total contract amount with outside attorney Renea Hicks to $255,000, according to city records.

City officials said they need the additional funds for “further briefing in the appellate courts, including the United States Supreme Court, if necessary,” according to a recommendation presented to Council. A city spokesman said the additional approved funds will not be spent unless the case is appealed beyond the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Zimmerman said the city’s campaign finance rules are unconstitutional and infringe on his freedom of speech.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the city is willing to waste taxpayer money in its zeal to violate the first amendment.”

“I’m extremely disappointed that the city is willing to waste taxpayer money in its zeal to violate the first amendment,” Zimmerman said by phone. “This is grossly unfair for a government that forces us to pay taxes and they are supposed to be defending our rights. So they assault our constitutional rights, and then they put a government gun to our head to pay for lawyers…it should make people angry.”

The city said the current campaign finance laws grew out of citizen concerns of corruption in the 1990s. A local group called Austinites for a Little Less Corruption successfully got a ballot initiative before voters. The initiative passed and created campaign finance restrictions that became part of the city charter in 1997, according to one of the city’s court filings. The case was originally filed in July 2015 in Federal District Court.

“The charter revision in 1997 governing campaign financing, and amended and loosened in 2006, was directed at lessening or eliminating quid pro quo corruption in Austin city council elections,” according to the city. “It was also directed at lessening or eliminating the appearance (or perception) of such corruption, as well as cutting off end-runs around the limits established to achieve these objectives.”

Zimmerman, who lost his City Council seat last November, said the city’s allegation that the rules cut back on the appearance of quid pro quo corruption is “complete nonsense.”

In his case against the city, Zimmerman challenged four aspects of local campaign finance law.

First, he challenged the city’s “blackout” period on fundraising, which barred candidates from fundraising until 180 days before an election.

He also fought the general $350 base limit on individual campaign donations, as well as the aggregate $36,000 limit on total contributions a candidate can receive from people in zip codes outside the city limits, according to the lawsuit.

Lastly, Zimmerman objected to the requirement that candidates spend the balance of their campaign funds, in excess of any remaining expenses, within 90 days of an election, according to court records.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel sided with Zimmerman on two issues: the fundraising “blackout” period and 90-day period to spend the campaign fund balance, according to a July 2016 final judgment. Those two rules were found unconstitutional.

Zimmerman called the ongoing case a “typical David and Goliath” fight and said the city has outspent him by 10 times on legal fees. Zimmerman said he has received donations for his legal expenses, and his attorney is working on the contingency that if they win he can try to recover fees.

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