A nonprofit leader is suing the city of Portland for defamation after the city rescinded a $11.5 million green energy grant from her organization earlier this year.
In December, the city of Portland awarded energy nonprofit Diversifying Energy a grant to coordinate the purchase of portable heat pumps and other cooling units for vulnerable Portlanders. The $11.5 million grant was awarded through the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF)—a public green energy fund that aims to make climate-conscious investments in communities of color and other communities who will be impacted first and worst by climate change. Diversifying Energy was chosen by PCEF’s grant committee because of the organization’s past work experience and its racially diverse employees.
However, an investigation by the Oregonian published less than two weeks later cast doubt on the professional experience of Diversifying Energy’s director Linda Woodley. According to the Oregonian, Woodley played a much smaller role in previous green energy projects than she alluded to in her PCEF application and several people at partner organizations that Woodley had claimed to have collaborated with did not recall working with her at all. The investigation also pointed to time Woodley spent in prison for financial crimes and that she was subject to state tax liens in 2021.
In response to the article, PCEF staff asked Woodley to provide specific references of people she worked with previously who could verify her experience executing a major energy program. While Woodley handed over references and copies of previous contracts, Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio—who oversees PCEF—determined there were still too many inconsistencies and moved the City Council to revoke the grant from Diversifying Energy. The grant was subsequently awarded to a different organization.
In a lawsuit filed with the US District Court for the District of Oregon Wednesday, Woodley alleges that the city defamed her, violated her due process rights, and destroyed her career when they stripped the PCEF grant from Diversifying Energy. Woodley’s lawsuit also claims that the Oregonian’s article mischaracterized Woodley's previous financial crimes.
“Ironically, [PCEF] is designed to bolster ecological resiliency in Portland’s communities of color—communities whose members disproportionately are accused and convicted of crimes, and that lose future opportunities as a result,” the lawsuit reads. “That is the precise harm that the City inflicted on Woodley.”
The lawsuit notes that the original PCEF grant application did not require personal references and claims that PCEF staff were talking to the wrong people while they were trying to verify Woodley’s work history, despite Woodley telling PCEF staff that the people they were talking to had no reason to know who she was.
According to the lawsuit, Woodley was given approximately 40 hours to provide contact information for previous co-workers that she hadn’t spoken to in years, a timeframe the lawsuit frames as unrealistic and hasty.
After revoking the grant from Diversifying Energy, PCEF adopted a new risk assessment evaluation for future grant proposals that aims to avoid a repeat of the situation. The new risk assessment process will give grant applicants six days to provide additional information, like personal references and previous contracts, if they are a newer organization or asking for a significant amount of grant funding. The lawsuit cites the difference in response time Woodley was given versus future applicants will be allotted as evidence Woodley’s due process rights were violated.
“Unfortunately, it took PCEF utterly botching Linda’s reference check, targeting her because of her mistakes decades ago, and ruining her reputation for it to realize its grant review processes were haphazard and needed attention,” said Clifford Davidson, Woodley’s lawyer, in a press release. “PCEF’s learning moment came at the expense of Linda’s career.”
Woodley is seeking $600,000 in damages—the amount of income she believes she would have received over the next several years until her planned retirement.
Spokespeople for PCEF and Commissioner Carmen Rubio said they were unable to comment on pending litigation.