Portland mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone’s campaign has asked a court to make the city auditor enforce a strict cap on the money candidates can lend themselves to fund their election efforts.
The order, filed Tuesday by attorney Alan Kessler on behalf of Iannarone’s political committee, her campaign treasurer James Ofsink, and campaign finance reform advocate Seth Woolley, comes less than a week after Mayor Ted Wheeler loaned his own campaign $150,000.
Voters overwhelmingly approved strict campaign finance limits in 2018, including a $5,000 cap on how much candidates can loan themselves. After a series of court challenges, the city auditor announced in May she would begin enforcing most of the campaign finance changes — except for the limits on self-funding.
The city has taken the position that the self-funding portion of the charter conflicts with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and would not hold up in court.
Plaintiffs are now taking legal action against City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, alleging that she is violating the city charter and circumventing the will of Portlanders by not finding Wheeler in violation of city rules. The order was filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
“Defendant’s refusal to follow the law undermines the voter mandate for campaign finance limits to remove the corrupting influence of money in local elections,” reads the filing.
Hull Caballero said in a statement that the auditor’s office is not enforcing the limit on self-financed campaigns because the U.S. Supreme Court has “consistently and soundly rejected any limit on a candidate’s expenditure of their funds to finance a campaign.”
“My office is not exercising discretion but simply complying with federal case law,” she wrote noting that the elections office sent a note to candidates in late April, letting them know they wouldn’t be enforcing the self-funding provision. She said the auditor’s office is waiting to enforce the rule until “authorized to do so by a court decision.”
Tuesday’s filing might end up leading to that court decision.
During a court hearing on the order, a judge agreed to require the auditor to either open an investigation into the claim that Wheeler’s campaign violated city rules when he loaned himself $150,000 — 30 times the limit in the city charter — or appear before a court and explain why the office had decided not to enforce this part of the charter. That hearing would take place on Oct. 23, according to Kessler.
The $150,000 was a significant boost to Wheeler’s campaign. Without the cash, he would have had about $19,000 on hand, according to campaign finance records.
In a statement, Wheeler’s campaign manager Danny O’Halloran dismissed the suit as a politically motivated distraction.
“Sarah Iannarone’s campaign continues to abuse the public process through complaints and litigation for political gain, which we’ve seen over and over again,” O’Halloran wrote in a statement. “We will continue running a campaign of talking to voters about Ted’s ability to lead the city through the current challenges it faces.”
Monday’s petition is the second time Iannarone has filed a lawsuit targeting Wheeler’s donations. In April, just after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of campaign finance limits, Iannarone sued Wheeler’s campaign directly, alleging that his campaign had taken in nearly $175,000 in large donations that should now be deemed illegal and unspendable. The city auditor had said the rules wouldn’t be applied retroactively. A judge declined to immediately curtail Wheeler’s spending while the lawsuit proceeds.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the lawsuit against Wheeler’s campaign is ongoing.