Suit seeks penalty for $73,000 donated to Portland mayor
An elections advocate is suing Portland's auditor — claiming she failed to enforce campaign finance limits approved by city voters in 2018.
In a lawsuit filed Feb. 13 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, plaintiff Ronald Buel points to $73,100 in allegedly over-the-limit contributions accepted by the re-election campaign of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. Whether such limits are constitutional, or even in effect, remains in contention.
After passing with support of 87% of the electorate, Portland's city charter was amended in several ways, including a new max contribution of $500 per person to any one campaign. Buel says Wheeler has since accepted seven donations worth $5,000 apiece and others as well, with much of the cash coming from developers.
"We are mystified at the actions of Mayor Wheeler, who is not above a law that is the will of the people," said Buel. "We do not understand why he is choosing not to comply with voters' clear desire."
Despite willingness in Portland and Multnomah County to rein back money's influence in politics, Oregon remains one of five states in the U.S. lacking any statewide caps on campaign gifts, a rule dating back to an Oregon Supreme Court decision in Vannatta v. Keisling in 1997.
Multnomah County Judge Eric Bloch has already ruled Portland's limits do not comply with that interpretation of the Oregon Constitution, though Buel and other advocates say he technically never enjoined — or halted — the charter amendments from going into effect.
The case is currently up for review by the Oregon Appeals Court.
"There's a difference between offering an opinion, which the court did, and issuing an injunction," said Buel, the founder of Willamette Week, who is filing the suit with the group Honest Elections Oregon.
The 25-page suit seeks to compel City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero to apply financial penalties to Wheeler's campaign for breaking the donation limits. Wheeler had announced voluntary caps of $5,000 per individual, and $10,000 for unions and organizations, in November.
"I have confidence that our decision is sound but hope to have a quick decision from the court given where we are in the election cycle," Caballero said in a statement.
Buel is also anticipating the results of the complaint.
"Multnomah County can enjoin it, we recognize that, but they could also say you should be abiding by it until we reach this decision," Buel continued. "So we'll see what they say."
Exhibit A in the new lawsuit is shown here:
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