Local political consultant's ethics in question; state commission issues $35K fine
Flower Mound political consultant Matt Armstrong has been fined $37,500 by the Texas Ethics Commission, which alleges he was involved in a “sham” political committee, didn’t properly disclose campaign finances and appointed a campaign treasurer who didn’t agree to the role, among other violations.
Armstrong in politics
Armstrong owns Flower Mound-based Grassroutes Public Relations, a political consultancy business, and has been involved in multiple North Texas campaigns in past years. One of his most notable roles was heading up the 2020 campaign for Ryan Williams, who unseated incumbent Hugh Coleman for the county’s Precinct 1 commissioner spot.
When he took office, Williams hired Armstrong to be his precinct chief administrator, but Armstrong resigned in September to focus on his business and political work.
On Oct. 5, the Texas Ethics Commission issued three orders against Armstrong, with separate fines adding up to a total of $37,500. The commission alleged numerous violations of the election code and government code dating back to political work from 2020.
The three orders are based on a sworn complaint and review by the commission. They are multiple pages long and available online on the TEC’s website (but also are included in this article). The commission held a hearing for the issues Sept. 28, but Armstrong didn’t attend.
Ethics Commission orders
In one order, the commission found Armstrong failed to properly disclose the financial contributions and expenditures for We Love Farmers Branch — a general-purpose political action committee for which he became campaign treasurer in 2020.
In summation, the order alleges Armstrong purchased mailers in support of a Farmers Branch City Council candidate for $345.15 but reported the expenditure as $10,000 when disclosing finances for the GPAC. Additionally, those figures allegedly came after a correction by Armstrong, with the original finance reports not showing any expenditures at all.
Relating to those numbers, the only political contribution for the reports in question was a $10,000 donation from a corporate controller for a title company “associated with the activities of a prominent Dallas-Fort Worth area real estate developer.” The TEC wrote that the developer was planning a development in Farmers Branch at the time of the campaign, which could incentivize it to influence elections.
“There is therefore circumstantial evidence to suggest that the respondent’s failure to disclose the GPAC’s expenditure for mailers was motivated by a desire to further obscure involvement by the developer in the city council election,” the order reads. “In consideration of the respondent’s pattern of evasion, deception, and outright false representation, and the circumstantial indications that the violations at issue were part of a deliberate attempt to conceal corrupt influence from public view, the Commission imposes civil penalties totaling $12,500.”
Of that amount, $10,000 was attributed to the improper disclosures, and another $2,500 was issued because Armstrong didn’t “timely file a response to the sworn complaint.”
Another order dealt with a different committee. The commission alleged that in 2021, a form was filed appointing Carol Williams as the campaign treasurer for McKinney Citizens United. The form included her phone number, address and signature, and indicated she was the one filing it.
However, when the TEC reached out to Williams regarding a late finance report that hadn’t been filed, she told them she had “no affiliation with the committee.” According to the order, Williams is her maiden name, and she now goes by Carol Mitchell, and while she agreed to serve as treasurer for a McKinney mayoral candidate’s campaign, she said she was “never told anything about a PAC.”
The commission handed down a $10,000 fine in the order, drawing particular attention to the woman’s signature:
“The violations at issue are serious and may also constitute criminal offenses of forgery and tampering with a governmental record,” the TEC wrote. “The respondent has demonstrated a pattern of flagrant deception and malfeasance that justifies a severe civil penalty.”
The issue was brought up again in the third order, which also related to a campaign treasurer appointment, this time for Citizens for a Better Farmers Branch in 2020. The TEC called that committee a “sham PAC,” alleging Armstrong paid $1,531 for a flyer that was sent out advocating against the incumbent Farmers Branch mayoral candidate. The flyer stated it was paid for by Citizens for a Better Farmers Branch, but according to the order, the committee hasn’t filed any campaign finance reports.
Additionally, the campaign treasurer for the PAC was named as Steve Mickelson, but the TEC wasn’t able to contact that person or find anyone with that name connected to the listed address or Farmers Branch. Going even further, the commission alleges the signature for Mickelson and the signature of Carol Mitchell — which she said she believed was forged by Armstrong — “bear a strong resemblance.”
This order handed down a $15,000 fine and was used by the commission to summarize the other two.
“The respondent’s conduct in this case is consistent with a broader pattern of deception and concealment that is apparent in the other two sworn complaints resolved at the September 28, 2022 preliminary review hearing,” the order reads. “The pattern of behavior shows a deliberate effort by the respondent to evade disclosure and mislead the public. The respondent also ignored the Commission by failing to timely respond to the complaint and failing to participate in the preliminary review hearing.”
Armstrong weighs in
Asked about the commission’s orders and fines, Armstrong provided an emailed statement.
“The issues with the TEC are quite complex, and I am working to appeal the decision,” Armstrong wrote. “The fines are egregious and politically motivated, and being promoted by the establishment cabal in Denton County who want to silence grassroots conservatives. Regardless of my level of success in appealing them, I will pay whatever final amounts are owed to settle the matter.”
Armstrong also addressed his relationship with County Commissioner Williams:
“Ryan Williams was not aware or involved in this, and it has nothing to do with his campaign or his office. Ryan and I have worked very well together, and I will do everything in my power to see that he is re-elected in 2024 as he has done a fantastic job. I am incredibly blessed professionally in my business and political pursuits, as well as my personal life.”
Williams, when asked about the TEC’s allegations against Armstrong, also provided a statement by email.
“These allegations were recently brought to my attention, however they have nothing to do with my role as Precinct 1 Commissioner,” Williams wrote. “I am evaluating my options regarding any future campaigns.”