For nearly nine months, Portlanders have wondered: Why did the president of the Portland Police Association resign from his role as union head on March 16?
On Monday, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty provided a possible answer. She filed a $5 million lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Dec. 13 against the PPA and its former president, Officer Brian Hunzeker, as well as the city and a Portland Police Bureau officer named Kerri Ottoman, for their alleged roles in the leak of information that falsely implicated Hardesty in a hit-and-run crash last spring.
One of the lawsuit’s major revelations: It alleges that Hunzeker leaked the allegation to The Oregonian, and that he did so “in retaliation for plaintiff’s years of opposing race discrimination by the PPB and members of the PPA.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Ottoman leaked the allegation to a political action committee, the Coalition to Save Portland, which aired the claim on a Facebook livestream the next morning titled “Scandal at City Council. Guess Who? Commissioner Hardesty.”
Hardesty’s attorneys argue that neither Ottoman nor Hunzeker were legally authorized to share the information, and that the leaks violated both city policy and state law. Further, they allege that Hardesty’s position as the first Black woman elected to the Portland City Council, as well as her longtime criticism of Portland police, motivated the defendants to leak negative information about her.
“Commissioner Hardesty’s advocacy for true police accountability and reform makes her Public Enemy No. 1 for many at the PPB and PPA,” said attorneys Matthew Ellis and Stephen Brischetto. “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.”
In a statement issued Tuesday, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt called the lawsuit’s allegations “deeply concerning.”
“Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is an earnest leader who has answered calls from our community to hold police accountable and pursue reform,” Schmidt tells WW. “The conduct alleged in her lawsuit is deeply concerning. Law enforcement must be held to the highest possible standard, and any instance where that standard may not have been met warrants scrutiny. When the public’s trust in our criminal justice system is compromised, it makes everyone less safe.”
Since last spring, PPB has been conducting an internal affairs investigation into the leak. It has released no results of its inquiry.
Because of the ongoing internal affairs investigation, Mayor Ted Wheeler says he is unable to comment on the lawsuit, or offer public support for Hardesty’s decision to sue.
“As the police commissioner, I am responsible for making the final decision at the end of the disciplinary process,” Wheeler tells WW. “I cannot comment on this matter until the process is complete.”
City Commissioner Carmen Rubio issued a statement Tuesday.
“I think it is important to remember that in addition to Commissioner Hardesty’s role as an elected official, she is a resident and member of this community,” Rubio says. “She deserves to receive an accurate and diligent accounting of what happened regarding the false reporting and its amplification—as is the right of any community member.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Commissioner Dan Ryan provided a statement to WW.
“What happened to Commissioner Hardesty was terrible, and any misuse of power needs to be thoroughly investigated,” says Ryan. “Commissioner Hardesty, City Council, and all Portlanders deserve to know exactly what happened that led to these unfounded allegations and harassment.”
Commissioner Mingus Mapps declined to comment at this time.
The genesis of the lawsuit traces back to March 3, when a white woman named Evelyn Ellis called 911 to report that her car had been rear-ended, and that she was “starstruck” when she looked behind her and identified the driver of the other vehicle: Hardesty.
Ellis was mistaken. Less than 24 hours after her initial call, police determined the actual suspect was a 65-year-old Vancouver, Wash., woman, who is also Black. But by then, multiple right-wing groups, as well as The Oregonian, published the allegations online, saying Hardesty was a suspect in a hit-and-run. (The Oregonian subsequently updated the story as new information became available.)
On Monday, more than nine months after the inciting incident, Hardesty’s lawsuit harked back to the initial reports published March 4.
Hardesty’s lawsuit appears to represent the first time a sitting Portland commissioner has sued the police union or active PPB officers in their individual capacity. Outside observers say it marks a significant moment in the struggle for control over the city’s policing.
“I have never seen anything like this,” says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. “Broadly, if what Commissioner Hardesty put in her lawsuit is true, it’s very unusual.”
Handelman says the incident is reminiscent of the case of Michael Fesser, whom West Linn police officers fabricated a case against and falsely arrested in 2017.
“That should be chilling to everybody that the police are doing things like this and then kind of just shrugging it off as a one-time mistake,” Handelman says. “Even people who aren’t public officials could be alarmed by this, because it means that anybody that the police don’t like could be subject to the same kind of smear.”
Erious Johnson, an Oregon civil rights lawyer, says the officers who leaked the allegation violated due process.
“Attitude reflects leadership. So if your leader is kind of doing this—you know, cutting corners, playing with information—what does that say to the troops? How do you hold people accountable if this is what the union [president] is doing?” Johnson says. “It’s almost a paramilitary mentality that we have with police officers: everything is a secret, everything is a mission, you know, forgetting that they’re public servants, beholden to the public.”
This story has been updated from the print version to include the statement from Commissioner Ryan.