Judge: Wheeler can spend donations over new $500 limit

Politics

A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge refused to prevent the campaign from spending money that critics say was illegally obtained

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, December 13, 2019 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Mayor Ted Wheeler’s reelection campaign can continue spending campaign contributions it has received over a $500 limit recently upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court.

During a Friday afternoon hearing, May 1, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan refused to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the campaign from spending around $175,000 in contributions that critics are claiming were collected illegally.

In an oral ruling issued from the bench at the end of the hearing, Ryan said Wheeler was entitled to rely on a previous Multnomah County Circuit Court ruling that found the limit unconstitutional. The City Auditor’s Office has said it will only now begin enforcing the limit after the Oregon Supreme Court, on Thursday, April 23, upheld a similar limit approved by Multnomah County voters in 2016.

Wheeler’s campaign was sued over campaign contributions by mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone and three campaign finance reform activists on Wednesday, April 29. 

The lawsuit claims the limit was always in effect and sought to prohibit Wheeler’s campaign from spending the money.

That argument was rejected by Ryan after hearing from both sides. He said it would amount to prior restraint of First Amendment rights.

Portland attorney Harry Wilson, who is representing Wheeler’s campaign, told the Portland Tribune on Thursday, April 30, that the campaign will soon move to dismiss the lawsuit. 

“Mayor Wheeler’s reelection campaign has strictly followed campaign finance rules and controlling court decisions from the beginning,” Wilson said. “The lawsuit misstates the law and is inconsistent with the City Auditor’s guidance. The Mayor’s campaign shortly will be moving to dismiss all of Ms. Iannarone’s meritless claims.”

The lawsuit also asks the court to order Wheeler to pay fines of two to 20 times the amount of each contribution, as provided by the voter-approved measure. That request was not considered at Friday’s hearing.

After the ruling, Wheeler issued a statement that said in part, “From the beginning, we have followed the law and adjusted when courts have made new rulings. We ask the Iannarone campaign to cease wasting additional taxpayer resources on distracting legal filings she knows are not going to withstand scrutiny under the law.”

A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge ruled the limits were unconstitutional before they were scheduled to take effect. The ruling was appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which took no action on it because the Oregon Supreme Court was considering a similar ruling on an identical limit approved by Multnomah County voters in 2016.

On Thursday, April 23, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the county limit did not violate the free speech provisions of the Oregon Constitution. The court remanded the case back to Multnomah County Circuit to determine whether the limit violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and is reasonable.

The day after that ruling, Wheeler said his reelection campaign will comply with the limit. 

Portland Elections Officer Deborah Scroggin then said her office will begin enforcing the limit in city races as of Monday, May 4. Scroggin also said the limit will not be enforced retroactively.

Iannarone and the activists filed their suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Wednesday, April 29. It argues the limit to effect in September 2019, making the acceptance of all contributions over $500 since then “illegal.”

The plaintiffs are asking the court for an expedited trial schedule. That was not considered during the hearing, either.

Iannarone’s campaign has so far raised more money than Wheeler’s in 2019 and 2020. She is participating in the city’s new Open & Accountable Elections program and has been approved for a total of $398,000 in private and public campaign funds. in contrast, Wheeler’s campaign has declared raising $242,000 so far.

Scroggin said the lawsuit is a private matter that the city will not comment on.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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