Mayor Ron Nirenberg chats with campaign volunteers outside of the Lion's Field poll site.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg chats with campaign volunteers outside of the Lions Field voting site during early voting in the 2019 municipal elections. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s campaign was accused of campaign finance violations in an ethics complaint filed last week; a campaign staffer said Monday the issues were being resolved.

“We’re going through each line item, making refunds and amendments to previous reports,” campaign operations manager Bert Santibañez said.

Annette Brewster filed the ethics complaint with the city last week, pointing to $162,625 in illegal or improperly reported contributions. Those included contributions from corporations or nonprofits, that exceeded the maximum amount an individual can donate, that were given during a contribution moratorium period, and where a donor’s employer and occupation were not listed.

Brewster declined to comment Monday.

Santibañez attributed most of the violations reported in the ethics complaint to the campaign’s staff transition period, saying the campaign made a “significant change in leadership” in 2020. Before then, Nirenberg’s campaign had been led by political consultant Kelton Morgan.

Santibañez said for part of the timeframe of the complaint, which spans June 1, 2019 to through Sept. 30, 2021, the mayor’s “former consultant” was still working for the Nirenberg campaign. He did not name Morgan.

“The mayor’s previous consultant really ran the ship for years for the mayor when it came to fundraising, when it came to anything political on the campaign side,” Santibañez said. “The former consultant was in charge of the whole operation.”

When the campaign brought on new leadership, Santibañez said, “our previous donors did not get kicked into our new donor database and that’s where the discrepancy lies. It’s just sloppy bookkeeping on our end. We as a team take this seriously and we’re doing anything and everything to rectify the situation now.”

Campaign staff is now calling donors who did not have employers or occupations listed with their contribution, Santibañez said; that type of reported violation makes up $129,294 of the overall ethics complaint. Staff is also in the process of issuing $24,550 of refunds to 34 donors who gave more than the $1,000 maximum in each contribution cycle.

Morgan called on Nirenberg’s campaign to return all of the money outlined in the ethics complaint.

“In the past, the mayor has frequently called for an ethics code with real teeth,” he said. “This is an ideal opportunity for him to set his selective ethics aside, put his illegally reported money where his mouth is, and do the right thing by following the law.”

In February 2020, former City Councilman Greg Brockhouse faced a similar ethics complaint ahead of his second challenge against Nirenberg for mayor. Brockhouse resolved that complaint with revised campaign finance reports and correction affidavits.

Some of the other issues in the Nirenberg ethics complaint had already been addressed, such as $3,240 in contributions from businesses. The campaign previously issued amendments for those donations, Santibañez said. As far as the reported $6,050 in contributions received during the moratorium period, Santibañez said the campaign followed local ordinances by waiting to deposit those donations.

Municipal campaign finance code states that mayoral candidates, city council candidates, and political action committees supporting or opposing those candidates cannot “accept nor deposit campaign contributions after midnight on the fourth calendar day before the general, run-off, or special municipal election date.” It goes on to state that any contributions received in that moratorium period “may be deposited during the subsequent contribution cycle.”

The Nirenberg campaign may file a response to the city clerk within 10 business days of receiving a complaint, but that is not required. The city’s Ethics Review Board makes the decision on what complaints receive a formal hearing. If a complaint does, the board can either dismiss the report or determine that the city’s Ethics Code was violated.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.