A state administrative law judge has revoked $77,000 in fines that a Portland election official slapped on City Council candidate Rene Gonzalez for accepting a steeply discounted rent on his downtown campaign office.
Susan Mottet, who oversees the city’s Small Donor Elections program, said last month that the cheap rent Gonzalez has accepted from his landlord, Schnitzer Properties Management, counted as an unreported in-kind contribution. Schnitzer Properties Management is owned by Jordan Schnitzer, who has supported Gonzalez’s campaign and donated $250 to Gonzalez — the maximum donation amount allowed under Small Donor Elections program rules.
Gonzalez was paying $250 a month in rent. Mottet said a normal tenant would have been asked to pay $6,900 per month for over 3,000 square feet of downtown office space at 1010 SW 11th Avenue. Gonzalez’s campaign said that was an unreasonable sum to expect anyone to pay for downtown office space post-pandemic in a part of the city that has been particularly slow to rebound.
Senior Administrative Law Judge Joe Allen sided with Gonzalez. He said the city had not offered enough evidence that $6,900 was the going rate of that space.
“The City failed to prove that Appellants received prohibited contributions or in-kind contributions in the form of discounted office space because the City did not show the fair market value of the office space in issue was something other than what Appellants paid,” he wrote.
Both Gonzalez and his opponent, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, are taking part in the Small Donor Elections program, an effort to reduce the influence of money in politics. Under program rules, candidates receive a 9-to-1 match on the first $20 they receive from a donor. As part of the program, they are not allowed to take in-kind contributions — donations of time, goods, services — from businesses.
While the case was pending, the city had withheld $77,000 in city funding to the campaign. In an earlier statement, Gonzalez accused election officials of “overreaching” and called for the money to be returned.
“While we are pleased with the decision, the damage to the campaign has been done,” he said. “We look forward to receiving the $77,000 the program has withheld as a preemptive enforcement action and putting it to work in the short time we have left.”
Amy Sample Ward, the chair of the Portland Elections Commission, which oversees the Small Donor Elections program, said they were “stunned” by the judge’s decision.
“This ruling creates a loophole for donors to give enormous in-kind contributions, rendering useless the contribution limits in the program and penalizing those who play fair,” they said. “In issuing the penalty, the Small Donor Elections Director followed the law which requires the use objective evidence when determining whether a candidate accepted an illegal contribution. This ruling overturns the City’s use of objective evidence.”
Gonzalez’s campaign has not commented on the decision.
This story may be updated.