City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is planning to sue the city for the leak of internal police records that wrongly named her as the driver in a March 3 hit-and-run crash in East Portland.
On Aug. 2, Hardesty’s attorneys filed a tort claim notice, obtained exclusively by WW.
The notice, which is the legal precursor to a lawsuit, alleges that city employees who leaked the false information violated Oregon’s public accommodations laws because they deprived Hardesty of her right to receive public services on the grounds of her race and her advocacy for police reform. She is the first Black woman to serve on the Portland City Council.
The notice names just one city employee: Brian Hunzeker, a veteran officer of the Portland Police Bureau who resigned as president of the police union for his unspecified role in the leak.
“The goal of the leaks was to damage Ms. Hardesty and force her removal from office,” the notice says. “Had Ms. Hardesty not been a Black woman, and had she not sought to call out the PPB for long-standing racist practices for decades, these leaks would not have been wrongfully and recklessly disclosed with the purpose of forcing her out of office and maligning her reputation.”
If Hardesty proceeds with a lawsuit against the city, she would appear to be the first sitting city commissioner ever to sue Portland.
“What happened to me shouldn’t happen to anybody,” says Hardesty. “I’m actually fortunate that I’m an elected official. Do you know how long it would have taken a regular Black person in the city of Portland to have proven that they didn’t do the hit-and-run and to seek some kind of redress? I have an obligation for folks who don’t have the wherewithal to actually seek justice.”
Hardesty’s legal notice is an extraordinary development in a peculiar saga, which began in early March when an East Portland woman called emergency dispatchers to wrongly claim Hardesty had rear-ended her car. The situation escalated rapidly after some city employees leaked details from the report both internally and to local news outlets.
Hours after those outlets blasted the false allegation across social media, police announced they had cleared Hardesty as a suspect. The next day, the Police Bureau released records that said the suspected driver was actually a 64-year-old Vancouver, Wash., woman—not Hardesty.
“By that time,” the tort claim notice says, “intended damage to Ms. Hardesty by city employees had been done.”
For more than 20 weeks, the Portland Police Bureau and outside firms hired by the city have conducted separate investigations into the source of the leak. But the investigations are ongoing and city officials will not say when they will be complete.
Hardesty isn’t waiting any longer.
In fact, in her interview with WW, she disclosed an astonishing fact: The Bureau of Emergency Communications, which dispatches police and firefighters to 911 and non-emergency calls in Portland, concluded its investigation into the leak July 29.
The bureau disciplined three employees as a result of the investigation. Yet BOEC did not announce it had concluded its investigation, nor whether it had disciplined any employees. Read details from the employees’ discipline letters here.
“We know absolutely nothing,” Hardesty says of the various ongoing investigations. “We know exactly what we knew the day that this happened. So do I think there’s been transparency? Not at all.”
The three-page tort claim notice alleges that an unknown number of city employees showed a “reckless disregard for the truth” and potentially violated city and bureau directives relating to disseminating confidential information. It further alleges the leak may constitute criminal official misconduct, a violation of state statute that may merit investigation by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
Hardesty’s attorneys, Matthew Ellis and Stephen Brischetto, say they anticipate filing a civil complaint within the next 60 days. They have not yet determined what sort of damages Hardesty may seek.
“The case is really more about the almost gleeful response that the police had to receiving such a call,” Ellis says, “and the sort of extreme overreaction and the violation of their own policies and rules in leaking information with the goal of damaging Commissioner Hardesty.”
Shortly before midnight on March 3, a Portland woman named Evelyn Ellis called the city to report that she had been rear-ended hours earlier at the intersection of Southeast 148th Avenue and East Burnside Street. “I know who hit me,” Ellis told the 911 operator. “It’s bizarre. It was a city commissioner. It was Jo Ann Hardesty. I know it was her….I was somewhat kind of starstruck.” (She later told police she wasn’t “100%” certain whom she saw.)
Reached by phone Tuesday, Ellis declined to answer questions about the incident. “Oh, with the police officer and all of that? I have no comment,” she told WW, then hung up the phone.
New details from Hardesty’s tort claim notice allege that about two hours after Ellis made the report, a pair of Portland police officers showed up at the commissioner’s home at about 2:30 am on March 4. The filing alleges the officers “banged loudly” on the door, waking up the neighbors.
Hardesty says she was home and “sound asleep” when the police arrived and that she learned of the incident two or three days later from a neighbor.
Hardesty and her attorneys allege that the purpose of the early morning door knock was to arrest Hardesty and force her to do a “perp walk” in which police escort a suspect in handcuffs, usually in public view, to their squad car and the police station.
“Let me just say,” Hardesty tells WW, “if this had been Mayor [Ted] Wheeler, I don’t anticipate they would have come over to make an arrest.”
The tort claim notice calls the alleged door knock a “show of force [that] was extreme given that the reported damage to the vehicle was a 1 centimeter circle on the white woman’s bumper possibly caused by the license plate screw from the offending driver’s license plates.
“Meanwhile,” the notice continues, “Portlanders—and especially Black Portlanders—often have to wait hours for police response to much more significant criminal allegations. Sometimes, there is no response at all.”
Later, on the morning of March 4—less than 12 hours after Ellis reported the crash—the hit-and-run allegation made its way to right-wing media pundits, including conservative commentator Andy Ngo, who has over 889,000 Twitter followers, and Jeff Reynolds, former chair of the Multnomah County Republican Party, who had previously penned a scathing column about Hardesty.
Before noon that day, the state’s paper of record, The Oregonian, picked up the story, adding that the driver had provided a license plate number to police. (The paper later removed the incorrect claim from subsequent versions of its story.)
Within hours, police used surveillance footage from a nearby TriMet MAX station to determine the driver was not, in fact, Hardesty, but a Vancouver, Wash., woman named Shirley Collins, who is Black.
Currently, the city says three investigations into the leak are ongoing: one by the Police Bureau’s internal affairs unit and two separate inquiries for which the city hired outside contractors. Those independent investigations will probe the leak itself and the broader culture of the Police Bureau, respectively.
On March 16, Officer Hunzeker resigned abruptly from his role as president of the Portland Police Association, the city’s police union. The PPA said Hunzeker had resigned due to a “serious, isolated mistake” relating to the leak.
To this day, neither the city nor the PPA have released details about Hunzeker’s purported role in the leak. He’s on administrative leave and did not respond to WW’s request for comment.
And on July 29, WW has confirmed, BOEC concluded its investigation into the leak. The investigation resulted in the discipline of three employees, the first on April 17.
“Our investigation found there was no external leak that came from BOEC,” bureau spokesman Dan Douthit said. “The only information shared through gossip by BOEC employees was within public safety.”
One employee received coaching for a minor infraction, Douthit says, while two others were “found to have significantly deviated from bureau policy by gossiping/engaging in unprofessional conduct.” One received a three-day suspension on July 14, and the other a five-day suspension on July 29.
Douthit adds that BOEC sent a reminder to all employees informing them about bureau policies, specifically as they relate to “professional conduct and gossiping.”
“Employees were reminded never to share call information with someone, even internally, without a need to know,” Douthit says.
Wheeler and the City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the tort claim notice.
Hardesty says the attempt to discredit her cements her belief that Portland police pick and choose whom they serve.
“I certainly could not imagine a situation where I would call the police for assistance today,” she says, “because I don’t have faith that they’re there to protect everyone equally.”