Prop K group branches out

It looks like Austin Civic Fund, the group that provided nearly all of the funding for the petition drive for Prop K, is sticking around and diversifying its activities.

You may recall that the Prop K petition drive was run by a group, Citizens for an Accountable Austin, which was run by Michael Searle, a former aide to conservative Council Member Ellen Troxclair. The group received almost all of its funding from Austin Civic Fund, a mysterious nonprofit also led by Searle.

At the time, Austin Civic Fund’s sparse website lent credence to the idea that ACF was merely a shell group created to shield the identities of donors to Citizens for an Accountable Austin. While Citizens for an Accountable Austin had to disclose its donors, it did not have to disclose the donors to Austin Civic Fund, since, according to Searle, those who gave to the latter group may not have done so with the knowledge that their money would be used for the campaign.

In all likelihood, the AFC did receive donations expressly for the purpose of the Prop K campaign. But there’s probably no way to prove it.

At the time, AFC’s website did include a few videos showcasing some nonprofits that appeared to have nothing to do with its political mission. At least one journalist confirmed that AFC had made donations to those groups.

Recently, however, ACF revamped its website to showcase more nonpolitical initiatives it is supporting. It is funding various nonprofits: Mobiles Loaves & Fishes, 3 Day Startup, the Half Helen Foundation, the Austin Creative Alliance, and Peloton U. It also posted a video featuring leaders of the nonprofits extolling ACF’s contribution:

None of those organizations have any clear link to conservative politics. A couple have links to the only two leaders listed on the AFC site: Searle (executive director) and Chris Covo, a longtime conservative activist who is chairman of the board. The Austin Creative Alliance’s leader, John Riedie, is an ally of Searle in the fight against expanding the Convention Center and shifting hotel occupancy tax revenue away from the Convention Center and the visitor’s bureau. A member of the Peloton U board is the president of Professional Janitorial Services, which Covo works for.

In an email, Searle told me that ACF “made grants to each of those organizations” in 2018 and that the group will be “doing quarterly grants in 2019” to similar groups, “in addition to some other projects.”

The group describes itself thus:

The Austin Civic Fund was started by two friends who saw many needs in the Austin community—and lots of great ideas.

ACF believes housing affordability, traffic, homelessness and other challenges require solutions that rely less on government and more on the ingenuity of Austin’s own innovative leaders and organizations. ACF connects Austin’s leaders, philanthropists, and citizens to the innovative projects that produce measurable results.

The website indicates that the group plans to hire staff soon.
Update: This post has been updated to clarify the fact that ACF was supporting other nonprofits before last year’s election. 

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