City Signs $50,000 Contract With Outside Law Firm to Defend Against Hardesty Lawsuit

The city hired outside counsel due to “an actual or potential conflict of interest.”

The Portland City Attorney’s Office signed a $50,000 contract this week with Bullard Law, a Portland-based firm, to defend the city against legal claims made by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

On Dec. 13, Hardesty filed a lawsuit against the city, Portland’s police union and its former president, and a Portland Police Bureau officer for their alleged roles in the leak of information that falsely implicated the commissioner in a hit-and-run crash.

Hardesty is seeking $5 million in monetary damages: $3 million from the union, the Portland Police Association, and $1 million each from the officers. She is also seeking $1 in monetary damages from the city, as well as a declaration stating the city violated her rights “to be free from race-based discrimination and retaliation” under Oregon’s public accommodations laws.

Last summer, Hardesty first notified the city of her intention to sue when she filed a tort claim notice in August.

The contract, obtained by WW through a public records request, addresses the tort claim notice rather than the lawsuit. It describes the contract’s scope as “all matters related to the tort claim notice filed by [attorney] Matthew C. Ellis on behalf of Jo Ann Hardesty, dated Aug. 2, 2021.”

While the contract refers to the earlier filing, the signatures are recent. Liani Reeves, president of Bullard Law, signed the contract Dec. 6. Then on Dec. 13, the day Hardesty filed the lawsuit, chief deputy city attorney Linda Law signed off on the contract.

The contract says the city hired outside counsel due to “an actual or potential conflict of interest”—most likely Hardesty’s position as a city commissioner.

Hardesty’s lawsuit names two PPB officers as defendants: Kerri Ottoman and Brian Hunzeker, who is also the former PPA president. Hunzeker has been on administrative leave from the Police Bureau since May. Ottoman has not been placed on administrative leave, according to a bureau spokesman.

The contract does not specify whether Bullard Law will also represent any involved officers, so it is unclear whether Hunzeker and Ottoman will be represented by the city or a city contractor—or if the officers will be represented by a legal team completely independent of the city, such as one hired by the PPA.

That distinction is complicated by the lawsuit’s claims, which allege that both Hunzeker and Ottoman were acting outside of the course and scope of their city duties at the time of their alleged conduct. Conversely, it alleges that Hunzeker was acting within the course and scope of his duties with the PPA at the time of the leak.

In some instances, the City Attorney’s Office has hired outside counsel to defend PPB officers due to conflicts.

As WW reported last month, the city signed seven contracts this year totaling $140,000 with the law firm Hart Wagner LLP to defend three officers, all former members of the now-dissolved riot squad, the Rapid Response Team, due to actual or potential conflicts of interest.

Hardesty’s lawsuit further accuses the city of violating Oregon’s public accommodations law by “engaging in an overreactive, excessive and unreasonable investigation” of the hit-and-run itself. The complaint alleges that numerous unnamed Portland police officers showed up at Hardesty’s home within hours of the initial report, at around 1 am, and “banged loudly on the door, waking her neighbors.”

“This conduct by PPB officers was a discriminatory, retaliatory and unwarranted overreaction,” the lawsuit 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.”