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As we previously reported in October, Joe Pickett was the individual likely behind several political mailers and social media posts against city council incumbents Isabel Salcido and Claudia Rodriguez in the November city council elections. Although we knew that the shadowy Political Action Committee (PAC), El Pasoans for Truth and Transparency was behind the political advertising negatively targeting Rodriguez and Salcido, we could not conclusively show that Pickett was behind the PAC. As we reported, the PAC and its funding sources were purposely opaque. Through public records we were able to track the source of the political funds to Joe Pickett.

We can now show that Pickett is the individual behind the shadowy PAC and he is the one that orchestrated the negative political advertising against Rodriguez and Salcido.

Although Pickett had filed paperwork announcing he was seeking the District 5 seat, held by Isabel Salcido, on the last day open for filing to run for office, Pickett announced he would not run for the seat. In a press release issued late in the day, Pickett stated that “there have been numerous life changing events” in his life that led to the decision to withdraw his candidacy.

At the time of his withdrawal, Pickett had a little over $315,000 in campaign funds available to him.

We were unable to report how much Pickett spent to target Rodriguez and Salcido last year because the campaign finance reports were not available. The filing period for the reports was Saturday.

Pickett filed two campaign finance reports, one at the city for the city council race that he withdrew from, and another at the Texas Ethics Commission for the El Pasoans for Truth and Transparency PAC he had formed.

In his city council report, Pickett reported that he was closing his city council race account. In the report, Pickett reported not accepting any campaign contributions. As we reported, Pickett had $315,392.54 in his city council campaign. On June 30, 2022, Pickett transferred the political funds from his state account to his city account.

According to the latest city filing, Pickett spent $1,694.49 and transferred $313,394.54 back to his state account.

Also according to the city’s report, Pickett transferred $22,000 to the PAC on October 20, 2022. On November 1, Pickett transferred another $500 to the PAC, and on November 4, he transferred another $400 to the PAC. On December 5, Pickett again transferred $1,500 to the PAC.

And on December 31, Pickett transferred $275,530.68 to the Joe C. Pickett Campaign. Pickett reported spending $13,463.86 from his city campaign funds. Much of Pickett’s expenditures from the city account went to donations to local charities, and a $4,500 payment to Mike Stevens, a consultant in Lubbock. That money went towards “research,” according to Pickett’s report.

In addition to the charity and the consultant fee, Pickett also reported paying an individual $3,240 of his campaign funds for cleanup work around town. But the research fee raised questions about what the “research” was for.

Mike Stevens

In his city report, Pickett reported paying $4,500 to Mike Stevens in Lubbock. According to online records, Stevens owns ActionDATA and Action Printing. ActionDATA provides political consulting services, and through its ActionDATA-Veritas it offers messaging strategies for PACs.

Steven’s campaign messaging has been controversial previously, and similar to the mailers targeting Rodriguez and Salcido.

In 2020, a mailer was sent to voters’ homes in Denton criticizing the opponents of two candidates in a runoff election. Both candidates benefiting from the mailers denied any knowledge of the critical mailers.

According to the Denton Record-Chronicle, mayoral candidate, Gerard Hudspeth accused “outside groups” of interfering in the election. The Denton newspaper tracked the mailer to the Texas Voters PAC. According to the paper’s report, the PAC’s treasurer was Michael Stevens. The newspaper was unable to contact Stevens for details about his involvement with the mysterious mailer.

However, Stevens has been actively consulting abortion activists across Texas on how to best make abortion illegal in their communities.

Outlawing Abortion

On June 20, 2022, six residents of Athens, Texas turned in an initiative petition demanding that abortion in Athens by outlawed. Stevens assisted the residents in their signature drive. Athens is about 70 miles east of Dallas. In the November elections Athens’ voters approved the ordinance banning abortions in their community, 58% to 42%. The so-called “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” is a movement across America that seeks to make abortion illegal in communities by criminalizing the procedure, the education or the sharing of abortion information.

In July 2022, El Paso city council attempted to keep the police department from enforcing abortion laws on the wake if the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In a 5 to 4 vote, the measure died. Voting in favor of ordering the city’s police officers to decriminalize abortion were Peter Svarzbien, who has termed out, and Alexsandra Annello who were joined by Cassandra Hernandez and Henry Rivera.

Claudia Rodriguez and Isabel Salcido voted against the measure along with Joe Molinar and Cissy Lizarraga. Lizarraga did not run for reelection and Molinar was not up for reelection in November. This left Rodriguez and Salcido as the only two city representatives who voted against the measure to force the local police to ignore Texas law facing an election.

The “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” was launched by Mark Lee Dickson, a pastor in Longview in 2019. Dickson’s “ultimate goal,” was “overturning” Roe v. Wade, according to The Panola Watchman, a newspaper in Carthage Texas. Roe v. Wade was overturned on June 24, 2022. According to the group’s website, 25 Texas cities and one in Nebraska have outlawed abortion in their communities. Two counties in New Mexico, Lea County and Roosevelt, as well as seven unincorporated cities in the state, have also made abortion illegal.

Mike Stevens, the political consultant paid by Pickett, argues that using initiative petitions makes it harder for future administrations to overturn anti-abortion legislation because such legislation would require another initiative petition, which is citizen-led legislation. Stevens pointed to El Paso, and two other Texas cities, Austin and Denton diminishing the enforcement of the Heartbreak Act in arguing for the initiative petition strategy to make it harder for other cities to circumvent laws restricting abortion. The Heart Break Act requires a physician to test for fetal heart activity before performing an abortion. Should a heartbeat be detected, the law generally prohibits an abortion in Texas.

The PAC targeted both Rodriguez and Salcido during the election. Both had voted in favor of the local police officers upholding Texas law, in line with the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn Movement, something that Stevens has been paid for across the state to make abortion illegal in cities like El Paso.

That leaves running for city council as the likely reason that Stevens was paid by Pickett. Rodriguez explains her vote at city council. In an email statement today, Claudia Rodriguez, who was targeted by Pickett and lost her reelection campaign told us that:

“While on City Council there was an illegal attempt to make El Paso a sanctuary city in the very Red state of Texas. As an elected official I had the responsibility of being a good and proper steward of El Paso taxpayers’ money. This was my number one responsibility and every decision I made while on council had to be made with the consideration of how this is going to affect my constituents’ pockets. I always took out the emotion and I refused to go roque on my constituents. The bottom line is attempting to make El Paso a sanctuary city would burden the Tax Payers with a massive lawsuit from the state of Texas. Abortion is not a city issue as it is in the jurisdiction of state law and Texas state law says cities in the state of Texas are only allowed to make abortion more restrictive not less. City council telling our police officers which laws to follow sets up a terrible precedence for this community and that was a precedence that I wanted no part in.”

According to financial reports, Mike Stevens was paid at least $39,000 in 2022 to help in anti-abortion legislation.

Questions About El Pasoans for Truth and Transparency Financials

As we originally reported, the El Pasoans for Truth and Transparency PAC was established on October 20, 2022. Although the PAC used an address belonging to Selina Aguilar, we were able to trace the address back to Pickett.

In its financial disclosure filed with the Texas Ethics Commission on January 7, the PAC identified its purpose as “opposed” to candidates Claudia Rodriguez and Isabel Salcido. The PAC reported spending $6,901.75 for targeted mailers through December 31.

The three campaign contributions totaling $2,400 listed on the PAC’s report came from the Joe Pickett Campaign. The three campaign contributions line up with the contributions Pickett reported in his city report.

However, the amounts reported in the financial report filed by the PAC at the Ethics Commission do not total properly. According to the report, the only one, the PAC has filed, it received $2,400 from Pickett, but spent $6,901.75 in advocacy advertising opposing Salcido and Rodriguez. In addition, the report states that the PAC has $1,544.43 left in its accounts. There is a discrepancy of $6,046.18 in campaign contributions that are not reported in the financial statements to the Ethics Commission.

The PAC reported spending $3,157.75 at All Print El Paso and $3,719 with Modern Cartographers. Modern Cartographers was established on August 3, 2022, according to Wyoming business records by Joseph Cameron. Cameron is a former El Segundo police officer who started offering political consulting services in 2019. The PAC also reported spending $25 in bank fees. The company is based in Hermosa Beach. The company’s chief operating officer, Braden Frame. He is a retired fire fighter in Lake Travis. He lives in Austin.

According to the PAC’s report, it paid Modern Cartographers for “digital messaging.”

The Anti-Candidate Mailers

The Pickett mailers sent to voters criticized incumbents Isabel Salcido and Claudia Rodriguez for their votes at city council. The anti-incumbent mailers highlighted the city’s high taxes, placing blame on the incumbents, although they had little to do with the rising taxes faced by El Paso homeowners. Most the taxes were levied by previous administrations or necessitated by actions taken by former city council members. Although the mailers carried the required disclaimer identifying El Pasoans for Truth and Transparency Financials as the PAC behind them, who was orchestrating the anti-incumbent mailers was masked in secrecy. Until today, how much was spent on the mailers and where the funding came from was not known. The financial disclosure forms point directly to Joe Pickett.

Inaccurate Mailers

The mailers were inaccurate in addition to targeting negative messaging towards Rodriguez and Salcido. Rodriguez told us in an email message that the Pickett mailers were inaccurate.

Rodriguez told us that “if ever there was a mailer sent out that was completely wrong, incorrect and misleading, it was the one that Joe Picket sent out against me during my campaign. Everything that he referenced and insinuated in that mailer that “Claudia did” was not me “Claudia” but the previous Claudia, Claudia Ordaz Perez as I was not even on City Council when what he is alleged took place. That mailer was not only misleading to the public that Joe Picket once represented and probably one day hopes to represent again, but it was also very irresponsible to implicate someone for having the same name in hopes of damaging their name, character and actual voting record.”

What’s Next For Pickett?

According to the most recent financial report, Pickett has $275,530.68 in his Texas campaign account. That is the amount his city report reported being transferred back to his state account. Under the “office sought,” Pickett listed “State Representative.” Pickett resigned his state representative seat in December 2018, citing his cancer diagnosis. Pickett had served at the state legislature since 1995.

In 2018, Art Fierro won Pickett’s seat at the State House. Fierro lost his seat to Claudia Ordaz and subsequently won Claudia Rodriguez’ seat at city council. Fierro took his city council seat on January 3. It was revealed later that day that Fierro had an outstanding debt to the city, making him ineligible to take his city council seat. It was also revealed that Fierro had a bench warrant issued for his arrest for failure to report to court to address the outstanding tickets. Fierro paid his outstanding tickets later in the week. Fierro benefited politically from Pickett’s mailers targeting his opponent, Claudia Rodriguez.

It remains unclear whether Pickett intends to regain his state seat in 2024, when Claudia Ordaz Perez is up for reelection for Pickett’s old seat.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.