Jo Ann Hardesty Files $5M Lawsuit Against Portland Police Union and Its Former President for Leak of False Hit-and-Run Allegation

The lawsuit accuses Brian Hunzeker of leaking directly to Oregon’s paper of record.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. (Alex Wittwer)

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty filed a $5 million lawsuit on Monday against the city’s police union, its former president Brian Hunzeker, and a Portland Police Bureau officer named Kerri Ottoman, alleging they leaked information that falsely implicated Hardesty in a hit-and-run crash last spring.

Hardesty is seeking $3 million in damages from the police union, the Portland Police Association. She also seeks $1 million from Hunzeker, $1 million from Ottoman, and one dollar from the city of Portland, which is also named as a defendant. That brings the total monetary damages sought to $5,000,001.

Hardesty’s attorneys Matthew Ellis and Stephen Brischetto issued a statement on Monday.

“Commissioner Hardesty’s advocacy for true police accountability and reform makes her Public Enemy No. 1 for many at the PPB and PPA,” they wrote. “Yet, despite attempts to punish her for her advocacy and force her out of office in retribution for her tireless and effective advocacy, Commissioner Hardesty will not be silenced. In the spirit of transparency, accountability, and justice, we look forward to her day in court when she can tell her side of this story to a jury of her peers.”

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

The lawsuit, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, provides insight into a complex, murky saga that began more than nine months ago. On March 3, shortly before midnight, a white woman named Evelyn Ellis called 911 to report that her car had been rear-ended hours earlier, and that she was “starstruck” because she recognized the driver of the other vehicle to be Hardesty.

Ellis’ claim was incorrect. Less than 24 hours after the 911 call, Portland police determined the actual suspect was a Vancouver, Wash., woman—not Hardesty. But in that time, the rumor had spread to multiple right-wing media outlets, as well as The Oregonian—all of whom published the allegation.

“The leaks alleged herein by the individual defendants to sources outside the city violated both city policy and Oregon law,” the lawsuit says. “None of the individuals who leaked the information were legally authorized to leak this information, and all are subject to discipline…for their leaks of confidential information.”

Hardesty is the first Black woman elected to the Portland City Council. She is also one of Oregon’s most outspoken critics of police. For those reasons, the lawsuit alleges, the named officers and the police union were motivated to leak damaging information about her.

“The leaks of information were made because of race and in retaliation for plaintiff’s years of opposing race discrimination by the PPB and members of the PPA,” the lawsuit says. “The leaks of information were made with actual malice because they were done with either knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard of whether the statements were false or not.”

The lawsuit accuses Hunzeker, a 21-year Police Bureau veteran, of aiding and abetting the discrimination by both the city and the PPA. At the time of the leak, Hunzeker had recently succeeded PPA president Daryl Turner, whose term ended in November 2020 and who had been slated to retire last January.

Hunzeker resigned from his role as the union head on March 16 due to what the PPA called a “serious, isolated mistake” related to the leak. Until now, the public has not been given any details of what action may have triggered Hunzeker’s resignation.

According to the lawsuit, Hunzeker leaked the incorrect allegation directly to The Oregonian by providing an unnamed reporter with a screenshot of the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) record generated by Ellis’ 911 call.

The lawsuit’s wording also suggests that it was Hunzeker who initiated contact with the reporter, rather than the other way around.

“The lie that Hardesty had engaged in criminal activity spread quickly,” the lawsuit says. “On the evening of March 3, 2021, or the morning of March 4, 2021, defendant Hunzeker contacted a reporter at The Oregonian, disclosed that Hardesty had engaged in criminal activity, and provided the newspaper with a screenshot of the CAD call. Defendant Hunzeker’s leak of this information violated both Oregon law and city policy.”

Reached by email Monday, Therese Bottomly, editor of The Oregonian, replied, “Other than what we publish, we don’t talk about our sourcing.”

The lawsuit accuses the PPA of discrimination and retaliation, intentional interference with economic relations, false light, and public disclosure of private facts—claims brought on by Hunzeker’s alleged role in the leak, which occurred “within the course and scope of his employment with or service to PPA,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit further accuses Hunzeker of aiding, abetting, inciting, compelling, or coercing the PPA to violate state labor laws, and of “knowingly [giving] assistance or encouragement to defendant PPA and shar[ing] a common intent with PPA” to discriminate and retaliate against Hardesty.

“By Hunzeker’s leaking false and racially motivated information that plaintiff was involved in criminal activity,” the lawsuit alleges, “[the PPA] discriminated against plaintiff because of plaintiff’s race, and for her opposition to race discrimination by its members.”

Hunzeker could not immediately be reached for comment.

Another key revelation from the lawsuit: It names PPB Officer Kerri Ottoman as a defendant. Ottoman has not been previously linked to the hit-and-run leak in a public forum. Like Hunzeker’s, the lawsuit specifies that Ottoman’s alleged conduct occurred outside the course and scope of her duties with the city of Portland.

City and state records show that Ottoman joined the Police Bureau in 1994 and that she also served on the bureau’s now-defunct riot squad, the Rapid Response Team.

According to the lawsuit, Ottoman contacted Gabriel Johnson, co-founder of the political action committee the Coalition to Save Portland, on the morning of March 4.

“Ottoman disclosed that Hardesty had engaged in criminal activity,” the lawsuit alleges, “and provided him with a screenshot of the CAD call.”

That morning, Johnson broadcasted the false allegation on a Facebook livestream titled “Scandal at City Council. Guess Who? Commissioner Hardesty.” As WW previously reported, Johnson was joined by former Multnomah County Republican Party Chair Jeff Reynolds as well as Angela Todd, the coalition’s co-founder and former chair of the Montavilla Initiative—a neighborhood group that’s been accused of harassing homeless people during nighttime foot patrols.

RELATED: Group That Aired Leaked Hardesty Allegation Has Financial Ties to Portland Police

The lawsuit accuses both Ottoman and Hunzeker of aiding and abetting in the city’s discrimination against Hardesty, intentional interference of economic relations, false light, and public disclosure of private facts.

“Defendants knowingly created publicity to a matter regarding plaintiff that put plaintiff in a false light,” the lawsuit says. “The false light was that plaintiff had engaged in criminal activity; allegations which would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.”

The lawsuit alleges that the union, Hunzeker, and Ottoman aimed to drive Hardesty out of City Hall: “Defendants’ disclosures were also factually false, made with reckless disregard for the truth and were designed to cause significant emotional distress to plaintiff and to force plaintiff’s removal from public office.”

The lawsuit does not explain Hardesty’s basis for her specific allegations about Hunzeker’s and Ottoman’s roles in the leak. For more than nine months, the Police Bureau has been conducting an internal affairs investigation into the incident. It has released no results of its inquiry to the public.

RELATED: “Juicy Juicy”: Portland’s Emergency Dispatch Bureau Suspended Employees Who Shared False Hit-and-Run Allegation

Most of the lawsuit is focused on the leak and how it damaged Hardesty. But her attorneys also argue that the police investigation of the hit-and-run itself showed discrimination.

Ellis first reported the incident at about 11 pm on March 3, police records show. The lawsuit alleges that, at about 1 am on March 4, “numerous PPB officers showed up in person at plaintiff’s home and banged loudly on the door, waking her neighbors.”

“This conduct by PPB officers was a discriminatory, retaliatory and unwarranted overreaction,” the complaint says. “Similar nonviolent, misdemeanor criminal complaints made to the [Bureau of Emergency Communications] non-emergency number were rarely investigated either in person or in a timely manner during the March 2021 time frame because of both PPB staffing shortages and COVID-19 restrictions.”

The lawsuit alleges that the city violated Hardesty’s rights under Oregon’s public accommodations laws, in part because city employees discriminated against Hardesty by “engaging in an overreactive, excessive and unreasonable investigation.”

In addition to the $1 in monetary damages that Hardesty is seeking from the city, she is also asking for a declaration stating the city violated her rights “to be free from race-based discrimination and retaliation” under Oregon’s public accommodations laws.

The Police Bureau referred WW to the City Attorney’s Office for comment.

The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.

The PPA did not respond immediately to WW’s request for comment.

Ottoman could not be immediately reached for comment.

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