Judge: Wheeler can spend donations over new $500 limit
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, May 1, hearing, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan refused to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the campaign from spending around $144,000 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. But Ryan argued the plaintiffs had not been able to prove they would suffer any harm if Wheeler's campaign spent the funds. He also siad such a restriction would amount to prior restraint of First Amendment rights.
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's campaign issued a statement which 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."
Dan Meek, an attorney for the plaintiff, said they would now seek a preliminary injunction to prevent Wheeler from spending the funds, insisting they were collected illegally.
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.
Meek continues to insist Wheeler's campaign should not have relied on the previous ruling.
"The Wheeler campaign could have asked the Circuit Court for an injunction against enforcement of the 2018 limits but never did," he said after the Friday ruling.
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 over the past two years.
Scroggin said the lawsuit is a private matter that the city will not comment on.
You can read a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue here.
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