Campaign Finance Reformers Sue Mayor Ted Wheeler’s Reelection Campaign Over Disputed Contributions

Among the plaintiffs seeking to force Wheeler to disgorge large contributions is his leading opponent, Sarah Iannarone.

Sarah Iannarone. (Wesley Lapointe)

Mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone and three other plaintiffs today sued the reelection campaign of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, alleging it knowingly violated a $500 contribution limit voters overwhelmingly approved in 2018.

The lawsuit, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, asks the court to enforce the $500 limit, which plaintiffs say went into effect Sept. 1, 2019.

The effect of that request would be to force the Wheeler campaign to give up about $175,000 in contributions, the cumulative amount he's received in contributions above the $500 limit. The lawsuit alleges that accepting those contributions gave Wheeler an unfair advantage in the race.

"If [the Wheeler campaign] is allowed to retain and/or spend the unlawfully obtained funds, it and the incumbent mayor will receive an unfair advantage in current electoral contest, causing irreparable harm to plaintiffs' legally recognized interests," says the lawsuit, filed by lawyers Alan Kessler and Scott Kocher.

The timing of the filing is critical because ballots drop this week for the May 19 primary and in the next three weeks, candidates will do much of their communication with voters.

The new lawsuit comes on the heels of an April 23 Oregon Supreme Court ruling that found campaign finance limits legal in Oregon—a reversal of a 1997 decision that left Oregon one of five states with no contribution limits.

The group Honest Elections Portland, which put contribution limits on the 2018 ballot, had previously warned Wheeler's campaign that it believed the $500 limit was in effect, despite legal uncertainty over the Supreme Court case.

Wheeler's campaign, which accepted individual contributions as large as $5,000 (Iannarone is relying on public financing for her campaign), ignored those warnings and banked on the 1997 law remaining in effect.

The campaign may have bet correctly.

On April 28, City Elections Officer Deborah Scroggin said her office would begin enforcing the $500 limit, but not until May 4, meaning Wheeler could keep all previous contributions and wouldn't be penalized for those over $500.

Oregon's courts are operating at reduced capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Kocher, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, says the group will seek to expedite the process.

"We are going to ask for this to get the attention of the judge as quickly as possible because of the threat of irreparable harm," Kocher says.

Wheeler's campaign scoffed at the lawsuit.

"The timing of this is purely political," said campaign spokesperson Lorien Sekora. "This has no merit."

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