Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has fired the police officer who leaked false information accusing a city commissioner of a hit and run.

Willamette Week was first to report Tuesday that Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell notified Officer Brian Hunzeker that he was out of a job in a Feb. 28 letter.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

An internal affairs investigation found Hunzeker and two other officers, Ken Le and Kerri Ottoman, were responsible for spreading allegations that turned out to be false against Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

FILE: Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty speaks during a press conference in Portland in February 2021.

FILE: Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty speaks during a press conference in Portland in February 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Investigators found that Hunzeker, who was president of the union representing rank and file officers at the time, leaked the false allegations to a member of the media and provided that person with a screenshot of a dispatch report stating Hardesty had been involved in a March traffic accident. Other officers leaked the same information to a conservative political action committee and another city employee.

The investigation confirmed Hunzeker’s actions were in retaliation for Hardesty speaking negatively about the police bureau, but did not find that any of the leaks were racially motivated.

On March 3, 2021, a 46-year-old white woman called 911 to report a car crash. She told the dispatcher she was confident that Hardesty had rear-ended her vehicle at an intersection in Southeast Portland and then fled the scene. The woman was wrong about the identity of the other driver. Police quickly identified the suspect as a woman from Vancouver, Washington.

But, by that point, the false allegation against Hardesty had already been leaked to the media and published by news outlets, including The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The Feb. 28 letter, signed by Wheeler and Lovell, spelled out the results of the internal affairs investigation, including that Hunzeker sent a text message to Oregonian reporter Maxine Bernstein soon after being made aware of the rumored hit-and-run.

“A few minutes later she calls me back...and I explain to her that I wanted to talk to her off the record,” Hunzeker is quoted as saying in an internal affairs interview. “All the information that I currently had, which was very limited... was unverified. It was unknown to be true, and it was something that if she were interested in doing her own follow-up work...she could do that.”

According to the investigation, Bernstein called back soon after asking for a case number or police reports and saying other people were denying the story. Hunzeker said he “took offense to the fact that she was calling police officers liars.”

Later that day, the letter said Hunzeker took a picture of a dispatch report and sent it to Bernstein.

“I never had the intent for the photograph that I provided to Maxine to be printed,” Hunzeker said, adding he was under the impression their conversation was off the record. “My intent and my thought process was, if a public official is involved in a crime; that would have high public interest. My passing on of the information was to bring together hopefully a bilateral relationship with Maxine.”

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

In response to questions from OPB, Oregonian editor and vice president for content Therese Bottomly disputed Hunzeker’s characterization of how the information was passed to her staff.

“As we’ve reported previously, we received multiple tips that Commissioner Hardesty was named as a suspect in a police dispatch report,” Bottomly wrote in an email. “To verify the information before publication, we contacted her office and confirmed with the police and the mayor’s office that there in fact was an investigation. We don’t mislead sources.”

The bureau’s internal investigation concluded Hunzeker’s decision to leak the information was in part retaliatory against Hardesty for her criticism of the bureau.

In a May 24 internal affairs interview, Hunzeker told investigators that Hardesty is in a position of power with influence over police union members and that his decision was in part due to his “young, naïve inability to manage a large organization.”

Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to the City Council, has been a frequent critic of the police bureau and repeatedly called for greater civilian oversight of the agency.

Asked if Hardesty’s position as a commissioner and her criticism of the bureau factored into his decision to leak the information, Hunzeker said, “yes.”

In a statement Tuesday, the Portland Police Association incorrectly asserted that the city’s investigation did not support the allegation that Hunzeker retaliated against Hardesty.

“There were many reasons Officer Hunzeker cited as the driving factors for why he shared the information,” North Precinct Commander Tina Jones wrote in her findings. “One of those factors, he admits, was in response to Commissioner Hardesty’s false allegation about officers setting fires during the civil unrest.”

Hardesty has sued Hunzeker, the Portland Police Association and the city.

Portland’s Police Review Board met in October to review the investigation and make discipline recommendations. According to the Feb. 28 letter sent to Hunzeker, three board members recommended a two-week suspension without pay, one member recommended a three-week suspension without pay and another recommended a three-week suspension to termination if the chief wished to impose termination.

Lovell and Wheeler considered Hunzeker’s long career with no history of discipline and the fact that he expressed remorse for his actions. But they also considered aggravating factors, such as his actions intentionally harming a member of the public and causing considerable harm to the bureau’s reputation.

“I have balanced these differing points and I conclude that the extreme harm and significant impacts of your actions outweigh the mitigating factors that I considered,” the letter reads. “Due to the egregiousness of this conduct, and the significant harm caused I have determined that termination is appropriate.”

Lovell initially recommended a 12-week suspension without pay, a decision Wheeler overruled in a Monday evening email.

“With all due respect to you as the Chief, I cannot support a suspension in this case due to the harm caused by his conduct and the egregiousness of his actions,” Wheeler wrote. “I therefore must direct you to change the outcome from a lengthy suspension to termination.”

Under the police union contract, Hunzeker can still appeal the termination. In its statement Tuesday, the Portland Police Association said is “reviewing the additional due process steps in place to remedy this mistake by the City.”

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories

A US flag waves outside the Portland Police Bureau building.

Portland Police Association president resigns amid leak investigation

The president of the Portland Police Association, the union representing rank and file officers, unexpectedly resigned Tuesday citing “a serious, isolated mistake related to the Police Bureau’s investigation into the alleged hit-and-run by Commissioner (Jo Ann) Hardesty.”