'You let us down'; Ethics panel reprimands Bastrop Mayor Nelson for inquiry interference

BASTROP — The Bastrop Ethics Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to issue a letter of reprimand against Mayor Lyle Nelson for interfering in an investigation into a city contractor.

The commission is not a judicial body so it cannot punish Nelson, said Rose Hargrave, a lawyer who represented the City Council after the Wednesday hearing. She said it was "up to the community" to decide about Nelson by choosing not to reelect him or by holding a recall election.

Commission member Barbara Caldwell broke down in tears after the vote to issue the reprimand. "I'm so disappointed in you," Caldwell said to Nelson, who was sitting in front of her with his lawyer at the hearing.

Bastrop Ethics Commission Chairman Chris Duggan, left, and member Barbara Caldwell attend the hearing Wednesday in which they issued a letter of reprimand against Bastrop Mayor Lyle Nelson.
Bastrop Ethics Commission Chairman Chris Duggan, left, and member Barbara Caldwell attend the hearing Wednesday in which they issued a letter of reprimand against Bastrop Mayor Lyle Nelson.

She said many people in the city had supported him. "I'm very emotional because you are a friend and you let us down," Caldwell said. "If you were any kind of man, you would step down and walk away. You are not the kind of man we need and deserve."

Nelson's lawyer, James Ringel, said after the hearing that the mayor did nothing wrong.

"Even as a public official, people have their right to privacy and the minutiae of their private lives are not fair game just because a City Council seeks to pry into their lives," Ringel said. "Ultimately, this is an example of government overreach by the City Council with a legal justification that is tenuous at best. The mayor also wants to assure the public that he will strive to better serve the community moving forward."

Lyle Nelson
Lyle Nelson

The six-member Ethics Commission also voted 5-1 against recommending that Nelson be removed from the city's economic development board, with Caldwell casting the lone vote for removal. Bernie Jackson, who voted against it, said the city needs to "move forward."

"We need to try to heal from this, and I think Lyle you can do that," Jackson said. "I think the council and you need to begin to work better for the citizens of Bastrop and not for your own personal agendas."

The commission made its decision Wednesday after the City Council made a complaint in January saying that Nelson refused to give officials eight and half months' worth of communications between him and Susan Smith, who is being investigated for misuse of public funds while she was the chief executive officer of Visit Bastrop. The marketing company promotes tourism and is funded by more than $1.5 million of the city's hotel occupancy tax.

During the investigation, a forensic audit of Visit Bastrop showed that from 2021 to 2023, approximately $70,000 in public funds from the city were spent on Visit Bastrop credit cards and approved by Smith without itemized receipts or other required documentation, the ethics complaint said.

"Some amount of the misreported public funds have been identified to have been used in pursuit of a romantic relationship with Lyle Nelson while he was a city official," it said.

Nelson initially denied that he had been involved with Smith until 232 pages of intimate text messages between them were discovered on her work iPad, the complaint said. He then admitted to the City Council "that there was a relationship that was sexual in nature and apologized to council for lying about the same," the complaint said.

The attorney hired by the city said in a report that there was no evidence that Nelson knew about the misuse of funds. Nelson also has denied that he knew anything about it.

Mayor Pro Tem John Kirkland, who made the complaint on behalf of the City Council, said at the Wednesday hearing that Nelson made "15 false statements in the first 15 minutes" of an interview with an attorney hired by the city to investigate Visit Bastrop. Nelson lied about the nature of his relationship with Smith, said he wasn't a city official until he was elected mayor in 2023 and asserted he had not been in discussions about the Visit Bastrop budget before he was sworn in as mayor, said Kirkland.

Nelson was a city official before he became mayor because he was a member of the Bastrop Economic Development Corp., said Kirkland. He also discussed the Visit Bastrop budget before he was mayor, Kirkland said. Nelson's intention was to "verbally joust and redirect and try to change the course of the investigation," said Kirkland.

Nelson also made threats against council members in executive session, and he threatened to file lawsuits during the investigation, Kirkland said.

Nelson did not testify at the hearing Wednesday before the ethics commission made its decision.

"We believe the mayor put out facts we believe are relevant and then some," Ringel told the commission. "We don't believe there's any need for the mayor to testify."

Ringel then said in closing statements that Nelson had his own personal right to privacy. He said the emails and texts the city had requested from Nelson didn't include any "city business" in them.

Hargrave said in her closing statement Wednesday that commissioners should listen to at least the first five minutes of the recorded conversation between Nelson and the attorney conducting the city's investigation so they could hear Nelson lying.

"The mayor's actions are in contempt of the council, in contempt of his seven years of ethics training and in contempt of the office of mayor," she said.

The commission decided before its vote to not consider during the hearing some of the information the city had collected during the investigation, including the 232 pages of intimate text messages between Nelson and Smith. The commission members did not say why they voted against including it. Before the hearing, Ringel had filed an objection to admitting much of the evidence the city had collected because it was "hearsay."

But the Texas attorney general issued an opinion last week saying the 232 pages of texts between Nelson and Smith are public information. "We conclude all of the submitted information was collected, assembled or maintained in connection with the transaction of official business of the city and thus constitutes 'public information,'" it said.

More: With no witnesses, Bastrop panel delays hearing on ethics complaint against Mayor Nelson

Smith was put on leave during the investigation and then terminated without cause, which makes her eligible for a $90,000 severance, Kirkland said during the hearing.

Chris Duggan, chairman of the commission and also the 423rd District Court judge, said the hearing Wednesday was not about Smith. "It's strictly against the mayor," Duggan said to Kirkland.

A spokesman for the Texas Rangers said previously that the agency is "looking into some allegations" against Smith but declined further comment.

Bastrop resident Cheryl Long, who attended Wednesday's hearing, said Nelson was not trustworthy.

"I think he should have had enough decency to resign," she said.

More: Lyle Nelson inherits challenges of ‘dramatic growth’ as newly elected mayor of Bastrop

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Ethics panel reprimands Bastrop Mayor Lyle Nelson for interference