It’s no surprise that Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris is ignoring a city ordinance that requires political candidates to disclose their campaign finances each month. After all, she ignored the same requirement back in 2017, when she ran unsuccessfully for mayor.
The bigger surprise, perhaps, is that she has so far paid no penalty for doing so.
The city’s Ethics Hearing Board, which oversees compliance with the ordinance, fined Harris $1,000 last year for not properly filing reports in 2017. But so far, it has done little to collect the money.
That may soon change, says board executive manager Leanne Davis.
“Efforts have been made and are underway to establish a mechanism by which the board can ensure compliance [with campaign-finance rules]," Davis said this week.
And while Harris’ name may not come up when the board meets Thursday, Davis says the board is interviewing lawyers “for anticipated litigation” on matters that could include Harris' refusal to report.
If a lawsuit does follow, it will be the first time in nearly a year that the city has taken public steps toward enforcing its oft-besieged campaign-finance rules.
‘We never heard from them again’
Passed in 2009 and amended twice since, the campaign-finance law has two prongs. One caps the size of donations to candidates running for city office, setting limits pegged to those under federal law. (Pennsylvania imposes no such limits on contributions to candidates running for state office.) The other prong requires candidates to disclose those contributions and expenditures for each of the three months prior to the election.
That’s a much more frequent schedule than under state law, which requires the candidates to file only one report in that time frame.
Harris ignored the requirement in 2017. In written filings from a December 2017 hearing before the Ethics Board, her attorney Jim Burn argued that the city didn’t have the right to impose a more rigorous schedule than the state uses. The board disagreed, and in a February 2018 order imposed a $1,000 fine for violations. The order noted that Harris “knew of the existence of the Ordinance … because she was a member of the Pittsburgh City Council when the Ordinance was passed.”
That amount in itself was a concession, since the board could have imposed a fine of up to $50 for each day that a candidate fails to meet the reporting deadline. Considering Harris ignored several months’ worth of deadlines in 2017, the fines could have cost her far more.
Burn said he received the order, but paid it little heed.
“We told them we weren’t paying, and we never heard from them again,” he said. “I was not surprised that we did not hear back from the Hearing Board, because we are confident that this is an illegal piece of legislation, and that the city knows that as well.”
The last public discussion of that fine appears to date back to an April 5, 2018 meeting of the hearing board. The board was informed that Harris had not appealed the $1,000 fine, but there appeared to be little clarity about how the board would collect it.
On paper, at least, the board can enforce its fines in one of two ways. It could take a violator to court by suing or, in the case of a current public official like Harris, the city could withhold her salary.
“No person elected to a public office of the City of Pittsburgh shall receive a salary or payment … if they have outstanding fines … related to penalties levied by the Ethics Hearing Board,” the city’s campaign-finance regulations assert.
According to the minutes of the April 5 meeting, then-city solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge urged the board to send a memo “detailing the Board’s final decision on the Harris case to the Human Resources Department and to include the Law Department.” She also said the controller’s office should be notified “of the board’s intended actions to collect the fine.”
It’s not clear how much of that ever happened.
Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, said the administration could not comment, in part because the hearing board is an independent entity. City Controller Michael Lamb said he never received any notice about the Harris fine, and couldn’t have done anything about it even if he had.
“They never talked to us about it, but we wouldn’t be the ones to talk to anyway, because it would have been up in payroll” if the city intended to withhold wages, he said.
Neither Harris nor any other official has had their wages withheld, Davis says. She said the legal basis for that provision is unclear, as is the mechanism by which it would be carried out.
“It’s something I’ve been working on,” Davis said. “Steps were needed to create an enforcement mechanism [that] involved multiple departments.”
Complicating matters is the fact that the heads of the three city agencies involved in the issue – the Law Department, the city’s Human Resources branch, and the Ethics Hearing Board itself – were changing leadership at the time. Davis herself became the board’s executive manager weeks after the April 5 hearing.
Harris’ attorney says she will fight any fine in court – and if the city tries to withhold her salary, she’ll be the plaintiff.
“I don’t think either of the options for recourse pass muster,” Burn said. “And if the city were to attempt to enforce this arbitrary fine in any fashion, we will see them in court.”
Even Philadelphia, which has its own campaign-finance laws, does not have such an ethics provision. And Lamb, for one, doubts Pittsburgh will be able to impose the rule.
“In Pennsylvania law, there are very limited instances where you can actually withhold someone’s pay – typically it’s for things like child support,” he said. “I’m not sure an ethics fine is in that category.”
‘Money will never leave politics’
The city’s campaign-finance law has had rough sledding in court before. In 2013, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James set aside its limit on contributions for that year’s mayoral race, calling the law poorly written and urging city officials to amend it.
The law was revised in a 2015 rewrite, and certain provisions were amended again late last year.
But for all the challenges, compliance this year appears to be improving. Other than Harris, the only candidate who appears to have ignored the rules in the 2019 cycle so far is District 9 city council candidate Leon Ford, who withdrew from the race earlier this week.
Patrick Christmas, who is the policy director for Philadelphia ethics watchdog group Committee of 70, says Pittsburgh’s struggles to impose regulations aren’t surprising.
“I’m sure in any jurisdiction where you have this new type of compliance infrastructure put on top of an arena that was kind of like the Wild Wild West,” he said, “it would take at least two rounds of wrist-slapping before you get into a better spot.”
Philadelphia itself had a similar experience. When it began imposing rules for the 2007 election, Christmas said, the reaction “was definitely quite messy. There was active pushback” and court fights over the law’s applicability. “It took one more round for a lot of wrists to be slapped, and slapped quite hard.” But by 2011, he said, the new requirements had taken hold, and by 2015 there was broad compliance with them by candidates.
Increased reporting is key to transparency, Christmas said.
“Money will never leave politics,” but “increased disclosure is something every municipality can ramp up,” he said. “While the typical citizen may not be scraping through these reports, journalists and advocates are. [And] when disclosure is minimum or infrequent, a lot of what’s happened doesn’t come to light until after the Election Day."