Campaign-Finance Dispute Heads To Court As Harris Tests Power Of Ethics Board

Nov 4, 2019

Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris is poised to leave office at the end of the year, but before she does, she will gain the distinction of being the defendant in a key test of the city's campaign-finance rules.

On Friday, the city’s Ethics Hearing Board filed a petition in Allegheny County’s Court of Common Pleas to collect $4,150, plus interest, for Harris’ failure to file campaign-finance reports in accordance with the city’s campaign-finance law.

Under that ordinance, candidates for city office are required to file monthly reports for the three months prior to the primary and general elections. That is a more rigorous requirement than in state law, which only requires one filing from local candidates during the run-up to Election Day.

But Harris ignored the city requirements during her losing bid for re-election this past spring, when she lost the Democratic primary. So in late September, after a series of hearings and letters, the nine-member ethics board imposed a $4,150 fine, giving Harris until Oct. 31 to pay the amount. The Halloween deadline passed without Harris so much as saying boo – and a day later the board initiated City of Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board v. Darlene Harris.  

In its filing on Friday, the board is seeking a legally enforceable judgment from the court. It notes that the city code says that no public officeholder “shall receive a salary or payment … if they have outstanding fines … related to penalties levied by the Ethics Hearing Board.”

Attorney Jim Burn, who has represented Ms. Harris throughout her legal battle with the hearing board, confirmed that the check had not, in fact, been lost in the mail.

“There’s no mailbox rule here,” he said, referring to a key concept in contracts law. “There is no check coming.”

The board’s power to enforce the law has not been tested in court. Harris flouted the law during her unsuccessful 2017 run for mayor, filing only the state-required reports but ignoring the additional city requirements. The ethics board sanctioned her with a $1,000 fine in 2017 but never followed through. Other candidates who ran afoul of the law that year – the first in which the new requirements were in effect – settled the matter.

The hearing board appears to be taking Harris’ defiance more seriously this time. But Burn and Harris have long argued that the city has no authority to impose campaign-finance reporting requirements that go beyond those in state law. The argument is based on preemption, the idea that once the state has legislated on a matter – as it has by setting up a campaign-finance reporting schedule for state and local candidates – local governments are barred from doing so.

A Common Pleas Court Judge last week said the city’s gun-control ordinances ran afoul of the same doctrine.

“Mr.  Peduto and this administration are very familiar with the doctrine of pre-emption. I just don’t think they understand it,” said Burn.

The state-required finance reports that Harris did file show she raised $29,200 in contributions this year: Going into the November election, her campaign had $25,886.89 on hand.

A hearing has not yet been scheduled.