San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele (right) delivers petitions to City Hall.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

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.

Kyle Ringo

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.