Did DA Joe Gonzales violate campaign finance laws through relationship with Wren Collective? Expert weighs in.

Gonzales did not disclose campaign advice from Wren Collective on campaign finance reports

SAN ANTONIO – Did the Bexar County District Attorney violate campaign finance laws through his relationship with the Wren Collective?

The Wren Collective is the criminal justice reform group whose connection with the DA’s office KSAT has been investigating for weeks now.

We examined more than 200 pages of text messages between the DA’s Office and the Austin-based group, which were obtained through an open records request.

The messages include discussions about policy, court cases, public messaging and mentions of campaign.

We took our questions to an attorney with expertise in ethics and campaign laws.

Andrew Cates is a political attorney with years of experience in Texas helping elected officials and candidates navigate what they can and can’t do while in office or running for office.

We asked Cates whether District Attorney Joe Gonzales should have disclosed campaign help from the Wren Collective on campaign finance reports.

“It depends on what they’re providing to him as a candidate and not just as an elected official,” Cates said. “If it is something that, like I said, he would otherwise need to pay for, then I would say it could likely be an in-kind (contribution).”

An in-kind contribution is something a candidate or official would normally need to pay for but is given to them for free. Those contributions still need to be disclosed in a campaign finance report, just like a financial donation.

KSAT has looked at Gonzales’ reports and there is no mention of the Wren Collective.

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‘I can talk campaign with you’

There are two text conversations we specifically asked Cates about.

In one message, Wren Collective founder Jessica Brand tells Gonzales “Just to clarify - I can talk campaign with you, but my team (which is on the grant) can only talk office policy and comms because it’s a c3 grant. I can do either just as long as they don’t happen at the same time.”

Cates said the separation of campaign and official communications was a “smart move... but yeah, it does sound like there is campaign communication going on.”

In another conversation, Gonzales before an event asks Brand “Should I just keep from making any reference to my reelection in November or should I stay away from party politics and avoid mentioning Republicans like the governor?”

Brand responds, “Yes I think just the gun violence and not campaign related.”

Cates said that conversation does sound like campaign advice.

At one point in the exchanges, Gonzales asked that the conversations be moved to his personal email.

We have requested copies of those messages, too.

Beyond the campaign advice, Cates said he would have advised the DA’s Office to get county approval to work with the Wren Collective for official communication.

“If there’s not a contract out there anywhere, then that’s questionable,” Cates said.

We requested any contracts from the Wren Collective and the DA’s Office in records request and a response KSAT got was that there wasn’t any on record.

Our team has tried reaching out to Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai since we began our coverage of this story and he hasn’t been available.

Read more reporting on the KSAT Investigates page.

About the Authors

Erica Hernandez is an Emmy award-winning journalist with 15 years of experience in the broadcast news business. Erica has covered a wide array of stories all over Central and South Texas. She's currently the court reporter and cohost of the podcast Texas Crime Stories.

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

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