Darlene Harris isn’t going quietly: Less than a month before the Pittsburgh City Councilor is set to step down, she has filed a lawsuit against the city’s Ethics Hearing Board and Mayor Bill Peduto – the latest maneuver in her years-long defiance of the city’s campaign-finance rules.
Facing a $4,150 fine for failing to meet the city’s requirements, “Harris is now facing an imminent risk that a Court may enforce a fine which was levied against her illegally based on … unconstitutional ordinances,” alleges the complaint filed Wednesday afternoon.
At issue is a portion of the city’s campaign-finance ordinance, under which candidates for city office are required to file monthly reports for three months before the primary and general elections. It’s a more rigorous reporting requirement than the one in state law, which requires just one filing from local and state office-seekers during that time. The city rule has tripped up some first-time office-seekers, but Harris has ignored it intentionally. While she followed the state schedule, she did not file monthly reports for her 2017 mayoral run, and refused to do so again during her failed re-election bid this spring.
Arguing that the rules not only hurt Harris but “have a chilling effect on the otherwise lawful right to run for office in the City,” the complaint asks the court to find the city’s ordinances unconstitutional, compel the city to repeal them, and pay Harris’ legal fees.
This complaint restates an argument that Harris’ attorney, Democratic Party solicitor Jim Burn, has made for years: that the city has no right to impose the reporting requirements, because doing so is “pre-empted” by state law. The argument is based on the idea that once the state steps in to regulate an activity, local governments are barred from doing so themselves. Accordingly, the complaint argues, “[T]he Pennsylvania Constitution and the laws of Pennsylvania prohibit [the city] from proposing, considering, and enacting … the Campaign Finance Ordinance.”
As WESA first reported last month, the Ethics Hearing Board took Harris to court first: The board fined her $4,150 for failing to file the monthly reports required by the city ordinance, and gave her an Oct. 31 deadline for paying the fine. When Harris did not respond, the board took her to court to have its judgment confirmed. A hearing on that matter had been scheduled for next week. (The board had previously fined Harris for flouting the reporting requirements in 2017, but did nothing to collect.)
The city’s ordinance gives the city power to collect fines either by taking violators to court, or – in the case of elected officials like Harris – to withhold their salary. Harris’ suit argues the city has no right to collect the fine at all.
Much of Wednesday’s filing parallels the arguments Burn has made in the case where Harris is a defendant. In that dispute, filings by the Ethics Hearing Board notes that courts have already upheld more rigorous financial-reporting requirements passed in Philadelphia, and that Pittsburgh’s ordinance is legal too. The Ethics Hearing Board also argues that Harris should have raised those issues during a 30-day window after the fine was set, rather than waiting for the board to collect.
“Given her failure to appeal, any arguments she has as to the legitimacy or constitutionality of the Order, the process that resulted in its issuance or the City Code … have been waived,” the Board argued.
The new lawsuit may give Burn another chance to make his argument. And in any event, the filing is not wholly unexpected: He told WESA this past spring that “if the city were to attempt to enforce this arbitrary fine in any fashion, we will see them in court.”
A number of ordinances backed by Peduto and other local progressives have been the subject of lawsuits focused on pre-emption, to mixed results. The state Supreme Court ruled that a city ordinance governing the training of building-security guards was pre-empted by state law, while holding that a paid sick-leave requirement passed by the city was acceptable. Local efforts to regulate gun usage within city limits are also being litigated over the issue.
Harris’ political career appears to have come to a close after she lost the May primary to Bobby Wilson, the candidate backed by Peduto -- who has long been Harris' nemesis. Her most recent campaign-finance report – filed in accordance with state law and with state law alone – shows her campaign had $25,886.89 in the bank as of mid-June.