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Someone in Law Enforcement Leaked False Information About Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to Her Adversaries

It’s possible the leaker broke state law as well as police directives.

By 4:48 pm on Wednesday, March 3, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty had finished her last business call of the day. Exhausted after a six-hour City Council meeting, she rested on the couch in her Southeast Portland apartment and started thinking about dinner.

At the same time, some two and a half miles away, a Portland woman says she was rear-ended by a tan, four-door sedan that then drove away. Many hours later, at 11:24 that night, a 911 dispatch report shows she called police and incorrectly told them she recognized the driver of the sedan: Hardesty.

The next morning, Hardesty learned about the allegations when an Oregonian reporter called.

By then, details from a 911 dispatch report that included Hardesty's name as a suspect had already been shared on Facebook by the Coalition to Save Portland, a conservative political action committee based in the city. The same morning, they were reported by Andy Ngo, a right-wing author with a national audience.

Within hours, the accusation would be amplified by The Oregonian, which added another detail that turned out to be false: that the 911 caller had provided police a license plate number of the car that rear-ended her.

The misidentification of Hardesty may have been a case of mistaken identity or racial profiling. (The woman who reported the crash is an East Portland resident in her 50s. She's a nonaffiliated voter, and her social media posts display no political affiliation. She did not return WW's calls seeking comment.)

But what followed was an extraordinary effort to discredit Hardesty.

"I fluctuated between wanting to break down in tears, wanting to scream at the top of my voice, wanting to use words that could never be printed in a family paper and knowing absolutely that whatever happened—if it happened—had nothing to do with me," Hardesty tells WW.

In a span of 10 hours, somebody leaked the false information to parties with an ax to grind against Hardesty. Somebody also told the state's newspaper of record, which ran with the story.

Gabriel Johnson, co-founder of the Coalition to Save Portland, says he received the report from an employee of the Portland Police Bureau on Thursday morning but would not identify that employee.

If Johnson is telling the truth, it means at least one PPB employee applied the tools of law enforcement to discredit a political opponent of the bureau.

But the attempt to torpedo Hardesty backfired: By the end of the day on March 4, police cleared her of the hit-and-run. One clue: Hardesty says she doesn't own a car that will start.

Now City Hall and police brass are probing the leak.

WW has learned Deputy Chief Chris Davis filed an internal affairs complaint March 5 into whether bureau directives were violated. It is not clear whether the complaint identifies any specific Police Bureau employees or which directives were allegedly violated.

That same afternoon, Mayor Ted Wheeler's office announced an "independent review" of the incident. Details of who will conduct the review are still being worked out.

One thing the inquiry may examine: whether the leaker broke state law.

ORS 162.415 says a government employee commits the crime of official misconduct if, "with intent to obtain a benefit or to harm another…the public servant knowingly performs an act constituting an unauthorized exercise in official duties."

Nick Kahl, a Portland trial lawyer and former legislator, says the statute might apply.

"There's an argument to be made that that constitutes official misconduct," Kahl says. "Whoever disclosed this [information] broke some rules. Anyone that looks at this release of information fairly can reach only one conclusion: that it was released to bully and harass Commissioner Hardesty."

Erious Johnson, a Salem lawyer who successfully sued the Oregon Department of Justice in 2016 after a co-worker at the agency surveilled his social media, says whoever leaked the report had a clear agenda.

"They're trying to build a campaign to get her out of there," Johnson says. "You can't unhear stuff. If people want to believe it, it doesn't matter if it was false or not. That's the whole point [why] you shouldn't leak information: because it could be false."

For decades, Hardesty has accused the Portland Police Bureau of racial bias.

Last June, she led the push to cut the police budget by $15 million. She also introduced Ballot Measure 26-217, which sought to dissolve the city's current police oversight board and replace it with a new one with sharper teeth. The measure, passed by a landslide in November, now faces a legal challenge by the Portland Police Association, the cops' union.

In July, however, Hardesty undercut her quest to be police commissioner when she falsely claimed Portland police were setting fires at government buildings and blaming it on protesters. Hardesty subsequently retracted her statement and apologized, admitting she had no evidence to support the claim.

Then the bad news started leaking.

In November, The Oregonian reported Hardesty called the cops on a Lyft driver who insisted on dropping her off at a gas station on her way home from the Ilani Casino Resort in Southwest Washington after the two got into an argument about rolling down the car's windows.

The story appears to have originated with law enforcement.

"I didn't go to [the press]. Everybody came to me," says Richmond Frost, the Lyft driver. "I believe it was leaked by the police. Because they were the only ones that knew. It's pretty simple."

Hardesty critics, including Jeff Reynolds, former chair of the Multnomah County Republican Party, pounced. Reynolds penned an online column: "Cop-Hating Portland City Commissioner Calls Police on Her Lyft Driver."

Reynolds is a prominent figure in the Coalition to Save Portland, along with Gabriel Johnson, a former Marine who formed the PAC in October, according to state records.

The PAC attempted to make itself a player in the 2020 mayor's race, calling for law and order, but it garnered scant attention, issuing periodic press releases and raising less than $1,000.

In late September, a few weeks before he formed the PAC, Johnson presented a $2,500 check to the Police Bureau's chaplains group during a union luncheon. (A bureau spokesman says it is unclear where the check was deposited.)

Johnson says he later exchanged phone numbers with Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell—and the two have spoken on the phone and texted on a few occasions.

"The chief also confirms that he has talked to Mr. Johnson on the phone a few times, just like he talks to many community members," a bureau spokesman says.

Johnson told WW he was provided the dispatch report by a PPB employee.

"I have made a public comment that it was someone in the bureau," Johnson told WW. "It was not given to me by the chief. It would be inappropriate for him to give that to me. It would be inappropriate for any of his lieutenants to give that to me." (Oregon law on official misconduct applies to all public employees, not just command staff.)

The Coalition to Save Portland published details of the dispatch that Thursday morning, March 4.

So did Ngo, a longtime scourge of Portland leftists, who reported the hit-and-run allegation on The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news website he edits. Ngo's story includes the full name of the 911 caller—information he could only be privy to if he had been sent the full dispatch report or if the name had been relayed to him directly. (Ngo did not respond to a request for comment.)

Johnson and his colleagues took to Facebook Live to broadcast the revelation. He was joined by Reynolds, as well as Angela Todd, an interior designer and former chair of the Montavilla Initiative—a neighborhood group that's been accused of harassing homeless people during nighttime foot patrols.

During the March 4 livestream, Todd blasted Hardesty.

"I don't think she has high integrity," Todd said. "Whenever I talk with people on a one-on-one basis or on the phone, they'll say things like, 'God, that woman is just really corrupt.' You know, the stuff she says, the stuff she's done. There's something that goes on where there's some kind of, like, Black immunity in Portland."

Around 10 am, about an hour after the livestream began, Reynolds published a column about the alleged incident, titled "Cop-Hating Portland City Councilor Involved in Hit-and-Run Accident."

Kahl says the decision to leak the information to right-wing groups is what makes it especially damaging.

"They were releasing it directly to people who don't care if the information is bad," he said. "You don't give the records to right-wing wackos except to bully her. There is no other plausible explanation."

The Oregonian's report added another wrinkle. The initial story said the driver had provided police a license plate number of the motorist who rear-ended her—suggesting the evidence against Hardesty was more substantive than it was. That detail was removed from subsequent versions of The Oregonian's story, without explanation. The dispatch report says the vehicle had unknown plates. (Maxine Bernstein, the reporter who authored the story, declined further comment.)

Oregonian editor Therese Bottomly tells WW the detail about the license plate came from multiple sources. She says she called Hardesty personally March 5, but hasn't heard back.

"Multiple sources told us that the driver who was hit had identified City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty as the motorist who had driven away from the crash, and that she had provided a license plate number," she says. "We removed the reference to the license plate number once we saw the [computer-aided dispatch] record."

Hardesty wants answers from the inquiries—but she doesn't expect reforms overnight.

"I do believe it was intentional to destroy my credibility. But again, not the first time or the last time I expect those tactics to be used," Hardesty says. "At the end of the day, the story isn't really about me. This is just the reality of being Black in America."

This story has been updated from the print version to more accurately explain the timeline of events on March 4.