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In final hours of his term, Peduto wins a round in legal fight against an old foe

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Gone but not forgotten: Darlene Harris' years-long crusade against a city campaign finance law suffered a setback Tuesday, Dec. 28.

With days left in his tenure as mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto has won another round in a long-running court fight with former foe Darlene Harris, thanks to a Commonwealth Court ruling that upheld a campaign-finance law Peduto championed.

But while politicians come and go, their disputes sometimes live on without them.

“I will be speaking to my client,” said Jim Burn, Harris’ lawyer and a longtime player in local Democratic politics. “I still believe we have good solid legal standing, and we are looking at our options to take it to the next level.”

The city’s law requires that candidates for city office follow limits on contributions and report them in the months leading up to a primary or general election. The rules are stricter than those spelled out in state law, which sets no contribution limit and requires only one financial report from local candidates, just weeks before the election.

Harris ran afoul of the city's rules in 2017 when she sought to challenge Peduto’s re-election as mayor, and during her own campaign for reelection to city council two years later. Her decision to file only those reports required by the state drew her a $4,150 fine from the city’s Ethics Hearing Board. Rather than pay, Harris sued to challenge the law in the last days of her final term on council.

But a Common Pleas judge rejected her arguments in early 2021. A three-judge panel on Commonwealth Court, a statewide appellate court that hears cases involving government agencies, upheld that ruling Tuesday.

At the heart of the case is the doctrine of pre-emption, the idea that if the state legislates in an area such as campaign-finance reporting requirements, local governments do not have the right to do so. But the city argued that home-rule municipalities in Pittsburgh have the right to set rules for their own officials.

The court agreed, finding that “[i]n the Election Code, the legislature did not express the intention to assume exclusive jurisdiction over the field of campaign finance of candidates for municipal office.”

The 19-page opinion noted that Philadelphia had imposed its own rules for years and been upheld by the state Supreme Court. Moreover, wrote Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, the state and local reporting calendars “do not present an irreconcilable conflict” because candidates could follow the city’s rules and those of the state. (In the 2021 election cycle, the Ethics Hearing Board modified its reporting schedule to better mesh with the state’s timetable.)

The court also rejected Harris’ contention that her four-digit fine exceeded a state-imposed $300 maximum on local penalties: The court called the penalty “appropriate,” siding with the city’s argument that every day Harris failed to file a report warranted a separate $50 fine.

Burn says he’s not convinced, and that he may appeal the case to the state Supreme Court. He noted that Philadelphia is a joint city-county government, which includes the local office of elections — while races in Pittsburgh are governed by an Elections Board convened at the county level.

The Commonwealth Court dismissed that argument, but Burn says it’s among those he might raise to argue that the city would need to overhaul its charter to be able to take advantage of the powers Philadelphia has.

“Instead of rewiring the house, they grabbed some extension cords,” he said.

Peduto will leave office next week, two years after Harris’ own departure from city government. But if Burn does appeal, then the case of Darlene Harris v. City of Pittsburgh, William Peduto, and City of Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board will continue — for months or even years after two of its principal combatants have left the political arena.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.