With a little less than three weeks to go until the May 19 primary election, Portland mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone filed a lawsuit against incumbent Ted Wheeler’s campaign, saying he must repay all the donations he’s received that surpassed the newly enforceable campaign finance limits.
Those 2018 voter-approved limits had faced challenges and remained in legal limbo throughout the course of the campaign. But last week, the Oregon Supreme Court opened the door to enforcement after ruling in favor of a nearly identical Multnomah County measure. On Tuesday, the city said it was clear the ruling applied to Portland's measure as well. Beginning next Monday, city elections officials will begin enforcing the rule, meaning no candidate in any Portland race will be able to take donations of more than $500.
Deborah Scroggin, the city elections officer, has maintained that these rules will not apply retroactively, so they won’t penalize candidates for cashing big checks prior to May 4. The Auditor's Office had made it clear to candidates entering the races that they would not be enforcing the measure before the court ruling.
But in Wednesday’s lawsuit, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Iannarone and three other plaintiffs involved with local campaign finance reform group Honest Elections contend that city attorneys have it wrong: Wheeler should have been abiding by the rules ever since they were supposed to go into effect back in September.
“As of the date of this complaint, the defendant has received more than $172,000 in donations prohibited by the Campaign Finance Law,” the suit reads.“Over 76% of the funds raised by the Wheeler campaign since September 1, 2019 were unlawfully received.”
In response, Wheeler’s campaign released just one line: “the timing of this is purely political, this has no merit.”
Back in November, Wheeler set his own campaign finance limits, though far higher than the $500 limit approved by voters. Wheeler said he would not take donations of more than $5,000 from an individual and $10,000 from an organization. Iannarone is taking part in the city’s publicly funded election program, where candidates can’t accept donations of more than $250. In return, donations of up to $50 are matched 6-1 by city funds.
Members of Honest Elections, a campaign finance advocacy group, have argued the voter-approved limits should have remained in effect as no lower court had ever issued an injunction against them. The city has dismissed complaints arguing as much.
Now, that the court has ruled in favor of campaign finance limits, Honest Elections is pushing its point once more.
Two attorneys who work with Honest Elections and helped craft Portland’s measure — Dan Meek and Jason Kafoury — assisted with the lawsuit against Wheeler. Kafoury said they were approached Tuesday by the Iannarone campaign. He said they had been planning their own independent legal action after the auditor made her position clear that the fines wouldn’t be imposed retroactively. The groups decided to join forces “for judicial efficiency” with a suit coming together in 24 hours.
Kafoury said they plan to sue other campaigns in which candidates have taken large checks. But they began with Wheeler as he has been “the most flagrant about violating the will of the voters.” The idea that the suit was political in nature, he said, was “ridiculous.”
“We don't control when the Supreme Court decides to make decisions; they decided last week,” he said. “So yes, it happens to come right in the middle of an election cycle. But that's Wheeler's problem, not our problem.”
The suit names three plaintiffs in addition to Iannarone: Moses Ross, David Delk, James Ofsink, all of whom are involved with Honest Elections. Ofsink is also Iannarone’s campaign treasurer.
In addition to repaying the money, they’re asking the city to fine Wheeler in accordance with the measure: a penalty of anywhere between two to 20 times the amount of the contribution.
Kafoury said he’s doubtful any court decision would come before the Primary Election, but could have an impact on the race if there’s a runoff.