Darlene Harris’ political career may have come to an end on Tuesday, when she lost her bid to be re-elected to Pittsburgh City Council. But if it’s time to write her political epitaph, it may well read “Defiant To The End.”
Two days after her loss, Harris was a no-show at a city Ethics Hearing Board proceeding for which she had received a subpoena, and which was called to consider charging her with ignoring the city’s campaign-finance reporting requirements. Her attorney, Jim Burn, made clear that she would continue fighting the campaign-finance rules, even though her campaigning days appear to be over.
“We may be spending some quality time as this moves across the street” to the Court of Common Pleas, Burn told the four board members who heard arguments in the City County Building Thursday.
At issue is a city ordinance that requires candidates to file monthly reports of their financial activities during election season. The reporting schedule is much more rigorous than the one spelled out in state law, which requires local candidates to file just one report between January and May. It's part of a campaign-finance law that was a signature reform of Harris' longtime foe, Mayor Bill Peduto.
Burn and Harris argue that the city’s reporting requirements violate the doctrine of “pre-emption,” which holds that, if the state legislates in a certain area, local governments are not allowed to pass separate rules of their own. Similar arguments have been made to overturn other reforms advocated by city officials, including a raft of legislation to limit the kinds of firearms that can be wielded in the city.
Harris has not filed anything other than the lone state-required report this spring.
During the quasi-judicial hearing, board attorney David Berardinelli warned that Harris’ refusal to comply was “having a negative impact on other candidates” – some of whom had stopped filing their own reports. One of them, District 9 City Council candidate Kierran Young, has publicly said he wouldn’t abide by rules that a seated council member was ignoring.
“There are candidates that have gone on record as saying, ‘We’re not going to file unless Ms. Harris files,’” Berardinelli said. “When that happens, the ordinance becomes a nullity.”
Harris ignored the reporting provisions during a mayoral run two years ago, citing the same objections. The board imposed a $1,000 fine anyway, although as WESA has reported previously, it did nothing enforce the penalty. On Thursday, Burn said that the lack of follow-through suggested city officials too thought the rules were unenforceable.
In any case, he said, “We did not pay the fine [and] no action was taken to enforce it … Unless we are taken to court, we’re not going to pay [a new fine] either.”
Burn argued that levying a fine “devolves into punishing someone for not doing something they think is wrong. [Harris] has never been afraid to look someone in the eye and call BS.” As for other candidates ignoring the requirement, “There’s a world full of leaders out there who stood up when they thought something was wrong.”
Burn also appealed to the board on what he called "a humanitarian basis,” because Harris had lost her re-election bid.
“In six months she’s not going to be a councilwoman,” he said before noting that Thursday was supposed to be a day of kindness – “I see kindness signs all over the city” – and asked, “Why rub salt into the wound?”
Berardinelli appeared unmoved.
Harris, he said, had “thumbed her nose at this panel, including by not showing up today.” Given that, and the need to discourage other candidates from ignoring the rules, he urged the board “to adopt the maximum fine” of $50 for each day that Harris refused to file a report.
Harris had toted up 83 days of noncompliance as of Thursday’s hearing, board executive manager Leanne Davis said after the hearing. That would work out to a $4,150 fine.
Davis would not comment on whether the board would take Harris to court if she ignored a fine this time too. But the board’s recent hiring of Berardinelli, a former assistant U.S. attorney, gives it additional resources to fight a court battle if necessary.
Board members will now deliberate over the complaint. There is no set deadline for them to issue a ruling. Depending on how long it takes to come to that decision, and to resolve any resulting court action, the case could outlive Harris' tenure in city government.