By Sandy Malone and Holly Matkin
Portland, OR – Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty filed a $5 million lawsuit against the Portland police union, its former president, the city, and an individual police officer alleging they all played a role in leaking information about a hit-and-run crash she was accused of having been involved in last year.
Hardesty filed the lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Dec. 13, Willamette Week reported.
The controversial lawmaker’s complaint is seeking $3 million in damages from the Portland Police Association (PPA), as well as $1 million from former PPA President Brian Hunzeker, $1 million from Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Officer Kerri Ottoman, and a single dollar from the City of Portland.
Hardesty was tied to the March 3 hit-and-run after Evelyn Ellis called 911 and reported that her vehicle had been rear-ended earlier in the night by a woman she recognized as Hardesty, Willamette Week reported.
Evelyn Ellis told police she was “starstruck” because she believed the person who hit her vehicle was the well-known city commissioner.
The lawsuit filed by Hardesty claimed that officers showed up at her home at approximately 1 a.m. on March 4 and “banged loudly on the door, waking her neighbors,” according to the lawsuit.
“This conduct by PPB officers was a discriminatory, retaliatory and unwarranted overreaction,” the complaint alleged.
PPB investigators determined less than 24 hours later that the hit-and-run driver was a woman from Vancouver, Washington and that Hardesty had nothing to do with the crash, Willamette Week reported.
By that time, the information provided by Evelyn Ellis had already been leaked and several news outlets that had already reported on Hardesty’s alleged involvement.
“The leaks alleged herein by the individual defendants to sources outside the city violated both city policy and Oregon law,” Hardesty’s lawsuit claimed. “None of the individuals who leaked the information were legally authorized to leak this information, and all are subject to discipline…for their leaks of confidential information.”
Stephen Brischetto and Matthew Ellis, the attorneys representing Hardesty, issued a statement Monday that said the commissioner was targeted by police, Willamette Week reported.
“Commissioner Hardesty’s advocacy for true police accountability and reform makes her Public Enemy No. 1 for many at the PPB and PPA,” Brischetto and Matthew Ellis declared. “Yet, despite attempts to punish her for her advocacy and force her out of office in retribution for her tireless and effective advocacy, Commissioner Hardesty will not be silenced.”
“In the spirit of transparency, accountability, and justice, we look forward to her day in court when she can tell her side of this story to a jury of her peers,” the statement read.
The lawsuit alleged that police targeted Hardesty because she is black, KPTV reported.
“The leaks of information were made because of race and in retaliation for plaintiff’s years of opposing race discrimination by the PPB and members of the PPA,” the complaint read. “The leaks of information were made with actual malice because they were done with either knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard of whether the statements were false or not.”
Hunzeker, a 21-year PPB veteran, resigned from his position as the PPA president in March, Willamette Week reported.
His resignation was tied to a “serious, isolated mistake” linked to the leak about the crash, the PPA said.
The lawsuit claimed Hunzeker reached out to a reporter at The Oregonian shortly after the crash and provided information regarding Evelyn Ellis’ claims about the incident, according to Willamette Week.
“By Hunzeker’s leaking false and racially motivated information that plaintiff was involved in criminal activity, [the PPA] discriminated against plaintiff because of plaintiff’s race, and for her opposition to race discrimination by its members,” the lawsuit read.
Officer Ottoman has been accused of leaking information to Coalition to Save Portland co-founder Gabriel Johnson, who subsequently broadcasted the false claim about Hardesty in a Facebook Live video called “Scandal at City Council. Guess Who? Commissioner Hardesty,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit further claimed the PPA, Hunzeker, and Officer Ottoman were trying to run Hardesty out of City Hall, Willamette Week reported.
“Defendants’ disclosures were also factually false, made with reckless disregard for the truth and were designed to cause significant emotional distress to plaintiff and to force plaintiff’s removal from public office,” it read.
Hardesty has demanded a declaration that the city violated her right “to be free from race-based discrimination and retaliation” in addition to the $1 in monetary damages, Willamette Week reported.