AUSTIN, Texas - FOX 7 Austin has discovered additional ties between the Austin Police Association and "Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability."
Police reform advocates with nonprofit Equity Action believe the mysterious group, also known as "VOPA," is misleading voters. Recordings show their canvassers have at times falsely identified themselves as Equity Action canvassers.
The group is soliciting signatures for the "Austin Police Oversight Act." Equity Action already collected signatures for a petition under the same name. That initiative is on the May 2023 ballot.
Both petitions offer models for police oversight. However, advocates with Equity Action argue the second petition put forth by VOPA is weaker.
After several days of attempting to make contact with the organization, Austin Police Association President Thomas Villarreal directed FOX 7 Austin to Jessica Garner. She agreed to answer written questions Friday and speak over the phone.
FOX 7 Austin sent several questions, including questions regarding Garner’s identity -- as she does not have an active LinkedIn, the phone number she provided is not registered to her name and her email is not linked to any accounts.
Garner said she became too busy to answer any written questions or take a phone call.
The Austin Police Department’s Facebook page shows Garner joined the Austin Police Department in 2020 as a member of the 141st cadet class. She is also an attorney.
FOX 7 Austin asked Garner, Villarreal, a city spokesperson and a department spokesperson to confirm Garner’s role with the department. After being asked repeatedly a department spokesperson said the union would be in touch. Garner then texted a FOX 7 Austin reporter confirming her role as an Austin police officer.
She wrote, "My involvement with VOPA is in my capacity as a longtime resident of Austin."
What is VOPA?
An internet archive screenshot of saferaustin.com as it appeared on April 17
Villarreal said he was too ill for a phone call Friday but said via text, "When VOPA was created, the APA was asked to give support and we have. Included in that support was allowing VOPA to use a website that we had previously created and used to cut down on time and cost. A web vendor left some incorrect information on it when it was first used by VOPA which is why it was taken down, fixed and re-published."
FOX 7 Austin asked Villarreal who VOPA was created by and why. He did not respond.
On Nov. 2 the PAC was registered with the City of Austin. Paperwork lists James Wood as treasurer. Wood serves as an attorney for officers through the Texas Municipal Police Association. The union represents over 30,000 officers across the state.
He also serves on the board of Austin Cops 4 Charities, as Vice President of the Police Activities League of Austin and sponsors the Austin Police Association. His biography says "Public service is in James Wood’s blood and his heart... James is also the husband of a local chief of police." His social media shows photos inside the Austin Police Association hall.
FOX 7 Austin spoke with a canvasser outside the Mueller UPS store Friday. He only provided his first name, "Don."
As our team approached him he asked a woman to sign his petition. She said "No thanks, that’s already on the ballot." When asked about the interaction, Don denied that is what the woman said.
He said he is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He went to great lengths to provide little information by way of contacts - at one point stating he was recruited by "just some guy."
He said the petitions have the same name, as they both deal with police oversight. He said he does not believe it is misleading and supports the petition because he believes that Equity Action’s ballot initiative will be legally challenged and not adopted.
He said canvassers have been given direction by a man named "John." He said he does not know John’s last name.
On Dec. 4 attorneys for Equity Action sent a cease-and-desist letter to Nasica Tactical executive director John Egan.
The website states it is a "nationally-renowned grassroots consulting firm with highly skilled standing teams of voter contact professionals." The petition fact sheet identified Egan as the contact for questions. Attorneys said they sent the letter to Egan because they could not find a contact for VOPA.
Nasica Tactical’s site states "We maintain a full-time recruitment staff with a database of over 1,500 political operatives nationwide."
The firm is currently hiring "field representatives" for $3,000 a month in addition to fuel and housing stipends. The listings state, "This work would entail door-to-door canvassing and providing voters with information on the candidates and getting them to the polls."
The cease-and-desist letter notified Egan, his employees, and PAC, that they must preserve all documents and communications related to the petition campaign as "legal action may result."
Don declined working for Nasica Tactical or any of Egan’s other operations.
Watch the full interview with Don:
Last year PAC Save Austin Now -- then helmed by the association’s since-retired president -- was accused of running a misleading petition campaign to get a police staffing initiative on the ballot.
On Dec. 2 FOX 7 Austin asked Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek if the group "had anything to do with" the APOA petition campaign.
She replied, "No, absolutely not. We are not involved with any petitions. We understand there will be an election next year. And we do want the citizens to vote on it, but we are not involved at all."
What to do if you believe you’ve been duped
Austinites who believe they have been misled can file a form with the City Clerk's Office to have their name removed from the petition.