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Subpoenas, search warrants could hit city hall

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Subpoenas and search warrants could soon hit Austin City Hall.

That’s according to criminal defense attorney Brian Roark. He told YNN that he will “assist” the mayor with his needs as Travis County Attorney David Escamilla investigates possible council violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

"The mayor has done nothing wrong," Roark said. "There has been no conspiracy to violate the open meetings act, nor secret deliberations."

The investigation comes after Austinite Brian Rodgers filed a formal complaint against the council, citing the city leaders were tending to city business in private meetings outside the provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The TOMA requires a quorum to be announced to allow public involvement in all city business.

Wednesday, YNN confirmed Mayor Lee Leffingwell and council members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison hired defense attorneys to provide them counsel as the investigation continues.

An aid for Council Member Chris Riley said he also intends to seek private legal counsel over the email inquiry.

Council Member Randi Shade said she is "in the process" of hiring a lawyer to get the "best advice” possible as Escamilla's investigation broadens.

Council Member Sheryl Cole did not return our phone calls on the issue. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez also ignored repeated phone calls and emails from YNN.

Thursday, Travis County District Attorney Special Prosecution Division Director Greg Cox said his unit has been contacted by investigators in Escamilla’s office, asking for assistance in the 'high-tech" arena.

"We are not directly involved in the city hall case, but the county attorney’s office is seeking our expertise as far as computer forensics is concerned," Cox said.

Escamilla wouldn't confirm that information but said his office has “a great working relationship with the D.A. and we sometimes work closely with them as needed."

Escamilla said he would exercise his right to use a Travis County grand jury if the inquiry into possible TOMA violations could benefit from doing so.

Investigators for the county attorney asked for volumes of public information provided by Texas law, including council calendars, agendas, emails and other forms of meeting documentation.

"This could take a long time to sift through," Escamilla said.

Roark, who worked in the county attorney's office for nearly a decade and was trial court chief before leaving, said Escamilla in recent days told him his investigation may take a more “aggressive” approach.

"Prosecutors could use a grand jury as part of their investigation which could lead to subpoenas for documents, subpoenas for testimony as well as some search warrants being issued," Roark said.

Another attorney hired to defend a council member also believes subpoenas are expected soon. He did not want his name mentioned for publication.

The City of Austin has already hired three private attorneys to provide open meetings expertise for a total cost of $159,000.

In a work session Tuesday, the council took the first step to draft a policy which would allow council members to voluntarily agree to forward electronic messages from their private accounts to the city’s server.

The city has declined to release emails hosting city business sent from council member private accounts.

Tuesday, Council Member Spelman was the first to break ranks and released three private emails from his University of Texas email account.

Council Member Morrison followed Spelman’s lead Wednesday afternoon and released a few of her emails Wednesday.

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