Lawsuit Alleges Fire Union Improperly Funded Petition Drive

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San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele (right) delivers petitions to City Hall.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.

The political action committee that filed suit against the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Union and its PAC this week is now asking District Attorney Nico LaHood and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to open criminal investigations into the alleged actions that inspired the lawsuit.

Secure San Antonio's Future (SSAF), a political action committee of local business and community leaders, alleges that San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association leaders illegally spent $510,000 in union dues to pay a company to gather signatures during its campaign to get the amendments on the ballot earlier this year.

On Wednesday, SSAF accused union president Chris Steele and Buda-based Texas Petition Strategies and its president, John Hatch, of committing possible felonies including unlawful campaign activities and tampering with government documents.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg reacted to calls for a criminal investigation by saying, “Taxpayers, especially those who feel they were deceived into signing these petitions by hired outside operatives, deserve to know the whole truth about the petition campaign.”

Juanita Vasquez-Gardner, the chief administrative attorney for the Bexar County District Attorney's Office, confirmed the PAC's "Memorandum of Prosecution" had been received.

"The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office has received a memo from the Secure San Antonio’s Future PAC," Vasquez-Gardner said in a statement.  "As with all complaints sent to our Office, we will review the allegations to determine the appropriate course of action."

SSAF opposes three City charter amendments backed by the firefighters union and filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block those measures from going before voters in November. Nirenberg also opposes those amendments. The City Council is scheduled to vote next week to call the ballot for the Nov. 6 election.

Nirenberg said despite the recent legal action he remains committed to getting the fire union back to the negotiating table to work on a new contract.

“I’m serious about getting a deal done with the fire union," Nirenberg said. "That’s the only way we can get a fair contract for firefighters and get them the raises that Chris Steele’s antics have prevented them from getting for four years.”

The City of San Antonio also is named as a defendant in the suit, which seeks to prevent the City from placing the amendments on the ballot.

In the suit, SSAF alleges that the union, its political action committee, and Buda-based Texas Petition Strategies illegally conspired to use union members' dues to pay for gathering petition signatures instead of using funds from the PAC as required by state law.

“State law is very clear on this point,” said philanthropist Gordon Hartman, who serves as treasurer for SSAF. “Our lawsuit contends that the union leaders funneled money illegally to a Hays County company with blatant disregard for the law and that cannot be allowed to stand.”

Chris Steele, president of the fire union, has previously said the union did nothing wrong in regard to its payments to Texas Petition Strategies, which helped gather signatures for the amendments.

"In a frivolous lawsuit, the opposition claims the signatures of more than 90,000 San Antonio citizens, which were legally obtained and already certified by the San Antonio City Clerk, are somehow now invalid," Steele said in a prepared statement. "In a complete misunderstanding of the law and the facts, the opposition seeks to keep the voices of San Antonio citizens from being heard. ... This is just one more attempt by opponents to stop the voters from using their voice to speak out against bad public policy and runaway spending of taxpayer money."

The lawsuit also alleges the fire union’s PAC improperly amended its campaign finance filings after media reports showed that the PAC didn’t have enough money in its accounts to cover the costs of the payments to Texas Petition Strategies.

"I am disappointed, although not surprised about the apparent lack of transparency regarding the funds used to pay for the petition drive," Mayor Ron Nirenberg stated in an email. "The legal case will have to run its course, but San Antonio deserves to know where the half million dollars came from and whether the signatures gathered by out-of-town political professionals were properly collected."

The lawsuit seeks damages equal to double the $510,000 allegedly illegally spent by the union and its PAC plus advertising expenditures by the union. It also seeks a temporary restraining order preventing the City from placing the amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“The City has been served with the lawsuit and is reviewing it,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a statement. “The filing does not allege that the City has done something wrong, just that we are a necessary party to the suit. We will be prepared to present the City’s position if a hearing is scheduled.”

The firefighters union sued the City in July claiming the City violated petition gatherers’ First Amendment rights when petitioners were allegedly threatened with arrest at the Julia Yates Semmes Library and other locations because they did not confine their efforts to designated "free speech areas."

One proposed charter amendment would limit future city managers’ salaries to no more than 10 times the pay of the lowest-paid, full-time City employee. Another would give the firefighters union sole discretion to decide when contract negotiations with the City are not progressing and require the City to go to binding arbitration. A third amendment would decrease the required number of signatures for a ballot referendum and extend the amount of time groups or individuals would have to gather those signatures on a petition.

"If these proposed charter amendments reach the ballot, I will fight to defeat them and defend our city"s future," Nirenberg stated.

16 thoughts on “Lawsuit Alleges Fire Union Improperly Funded Petition Drive

    • So Linda, you think it’s OK to illegally use this money to fund an incredibly stupid, self-serving agenda, dangerous initiative? Tell me what do the firefighters, or even the union get out of this? Correct – nothing.
      Yes, nice work Mayor – he’s looking out for the City which is his job.

    • Why would it be time to cancel your USAA insurance? How about finding out WHY one of the oldest and largest employers in this city, and a solid, stand-up company be behind this group trying to kill these insane ballot measures (and thank God they are).
      Do your homework before making ignorant comments.

      • what is so insane about the measure to make it easier to have a new initiative before the voters?
        As for the City Manager salary, the amount has become ridiculous enough to think Sculley has them intimidated. How do you propose to fix this issue?

    • Nikki, if you knew anything about USAA, you’d know that most of USAA’s customers don’t even live in the greater San Antonio metropolitan area (or even in Texas) and have no connections to the politics of the city. Every USAA customer in SA could cancel as you suggested and the company would still be a very strong company. USAA might be a local company but it serves a national clientele.

  1. I am now fully convinced that these three proposals SHOULD be on the ballot and that I WILL vote for them! Seriously, how transparent is this is this move to keep these off the ballot box. I agree with RC: Who are the entities that comprise this political action group that should be amended to read “Secure San Antonio’s Future For Us”?

    Really, here we go again..(cite the history of the city for 300 years) …Citizens have no say when it concerns issues that have the potential to conflict with the power brokers in this city. I had hoped for at least a less obvious means of trying to silence our voices, one that is t least less of an insult to our intelligence. Give us that at least.

    • One of the proposals could be used to work against citizens. Let’s say you buy some land at the corner of a major street and residential street. You see that the lot directly across the street from yours looks like a house but that it houses a small, family owned business. Even though it’s a residential street, that lot has been zoned for small business. You think to yourself you’dd like to change the zoning on your lot from it’s current residential to small business as well. Right now, following the proper legal channels, you can have city council vote to change that zoning for you. If the new amendment “to facilitate voter use of the referendum process” passed, a group of citizens opposed to you for even personal reasons could get your zoning request put on the election ballot if they received the proposed lowered minimum number of signatures. Yes, a very unlikely scenario but one meant to over simplify the type of unwanted havoc this particular amendment opens the door to.

  2. This move is EXTREMELY transparent. I’ve known about it since it started, where have you been? And I support it 1000%. These initiatives (self-serving) are dangerous and absurd.
    Why do you think your voices are trying to be silenced? Ever talk with your city council person – do you even know who it is? Did you even vote last time?
    And thank goodness for the “power brokers” in this city, otherwise it would still be a crappy little one-horse town (which apparently a lot of you out there would like it to still be).
    Grow up and get into the 21st century.

  3. After reading the HTASA.org page per your recommendation I noticed they misquoted: “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” — Thomas Jefferson”.
    This exact quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It bears a very vague resemblance to Jefferson’s comment in a prospectus for his translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy: “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, — the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.”
    History misinterpreted, as usual.

  4. Apparently City Hall and it’s masters the local capitalists fear change. They have controlled San Antonio for so long, and made billions off us.
    Again, we need firefighters far more than crooked politicians and their bribes!

  5. Pancho, do you even understand the impact that this could have to our city, our tax bills if it passes? We’re the last major city to have a triple A credit rating, this is a result of all the hard work by city staff (led by our city manager) and our “crooked politicians” as you call them.
    Remember this when our infrastructure is falling apart and we can’t afford to repair it.

  6. I signed the petitions after leaving an early voting site in February. I was asked to sign a petition to force the city to negotiate with the firefighters for a new contract. I am all for that negotiation taking place, especially since I have a family member affected by it’s outcome and lack there of. I had heard that the petition existed while listening to the news and I’m a college educated person but I’ve never signed a petition before. In my ignorance and rush to beat rush hour traffic, I didn’t do my due diligence to actually read what was on the petition I signed. In fact, I was so naive that I even believed the petitioner at his word that I was required to sign the petition three times. Shame on me for not taking the time to read what I was putting my name on. But shame on the petitioner for telling me I was signing to petition a forced negotiation. Shame on the petitioner for never informing me that I was actually signing to have 3 separate laws placed on the ballot, 2 of which if passed don’t directly affect the firefighter’s unions negotiations and the 3rd which directly affects negotiations but although unlikely, doesn’t guarantee negotiations always go the unions way.

    I’m not alone in this scenario nor in how I plan to proceed. The union may have gained my signature to get the petitions approved but because of their deceiving tactics, that is one signature that won’t translate to a vote for them in the election. I am 100% for the firefighters getting the contracts they deserve but that needs to be done completely at the negotiating table. I will be voting against the ballot proposals! I want the union to know that they lost a vote, and many more from others who feel duped as I do, that they currently think they have. Replies that rebut my stance and placing blame on the city won’t change the fact that I was tricked into signing the petitions and that my vote will correct my mistake…the people WILL speak!

  7. Too bad the public safety workers are being sued by the same old power brokers to disallow more direct democracy. Seems like they fear that they can’t buy the influence of the public like the politicians. This fear of the power of the people by the politicians is very telling.

  8. This article signals the allegiance between the mayor and the corporate 1%. So obvious. Meanwhile, the subsidies and corporate welfare continues to flow but working class public safety workers have to beg and plead for their contract. I’ve been here 2 years and have read article after article about the handouts from the city to developers. Broken social contracts litter the streets of San Antonio. If you’re young and thinking of moving to this town, there are better towns out there. Expect a rude awakening, especially when you hear the mayor and a city councilor say that “trains our outdated”, just wow. Tell that to the rest of the world. Apparently riding scooters in the 100 degree heat and paying out the nose for transportation is better??? I got lost after I moved here and discovered that most of the city lives in a sad state. Lots of people told me this city was progressive, not, it’s very much the opposite, pretty depressing (and expensive) to live here. I’m moving back to the East coast.

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