City Council candidate Rene Gonzalez has asked the city reconsider the $77,000 fine levied against his campaign for allegedly violating the city’s small donor election laws. The Gonzalez campaign called the penalty "unjustified" in a letter sent to the city Tuesday, accusing the city of attempting to undermine Gonzalez's campaign for council a month before he challenges City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty at the polls.
"This is the city putting its finger on the scales in our election," said Gonzalez campaign manager Shah Smith in a press release following the filing Tuesday.
Gonzalez was alerted last week that his campaign was in violation of the city's small donor election policy by renting downtown office space from Portland businessman and Gonzalez supporter Jordan Schnitzer at a highly-discounted rate. According to Susan Mottet, the director of Portland's Small Donor Elections program, Gonzalez's monthly $250 rent bill (plus $540 in utilities) is a 96 percent discount from the $6,900 per month amount Schnitzer had advertised the office space for online.
Mottet asked the Gonzalez campaign pay $43,890 in penalty fees to the city for the violation and $33,250 to Schnitzer to return the “in-kind contribution.” The total $77,140 fine is the largest in Portland’s Small Donor Elections program history.
Yet, the Gonzalez campaign isn't rushing to comply. The campaign laid out its argument against the penalty in a Tuesday letter to Mottet. The campaign's leading complaint is that, because Schnitzer has been unable to rent the office space to tenants in recent years, the market value of the rental space is closer to $0 than a monthly $6,900.
"Vacancy rates for commercial space in downtown Portland are at historic highs, as businesses large and small as well as citizens flee the downtrodden and even dangerous downtown environment," the letter reads.
The letter points to a statement Schnitzer made to KGW Thursday, claiming that "There is virtually no leasing activity in downtown Portland... From my standpoint, [Gonzalez] did us a favor by taking the space and having people come and go."
Gonzalez's campaign claims that this rental discount and agreement isn't unusual in downtown Portland. As an example, their letter explains that the Multnomah County District Attorney's office leases its downtown office space from Multnomah County for $0 per month in rent. Of course, this discount for the DA’s office isn’t going to a political candidate, nor is it being offered by a campaign donor.
Yet, Gonzalez's campaign shrugs off this flawed comparison.
"While one can argue that there is a difference between the government taking advantage of discounted rent and a campaign doing so, any such difference is irrelevant for purposes of the present analysis," the letter reads.
The Gonzalez campaign has also accused Mottet of acting "passive aggressive[ly]" towards their campaign.
"By announcing a massive fine... less than two months before the election, the Director has unfairly injected the Program into this race in a manner hostile to Rene for Portland," the letter reads. "Distracted voters viewed the headlines and formed opinions."
(It should be noted that this letter also accuses the Mercury of being "hostile" to the campaign because it accurately called the city's fine against Gonzalez "historic.")
The Gonzalez campaign has not responded to any calls or emails from the Mercury requesting interviews with Gonzalez—including for this story—for months.
The letter ends with Gonzalez's campaign dramatically comparing their campaign violation notice to when former FBI Director James Comey announced an investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails shortly before the 2016 presidential election—a move that many believe cost Clinton the presidency.
"Since that fiasco," the campaign writes, "government agencies should be particularly sensitive to avoid needlessly and inappropriately influencing elections."
Mottet has 10 days to respond to the campaign's letter—but told the Mercury that she intends to respond by Thursday. If the letter fails to change Mottet's mind on the violation, the Gonzalez campaign will be able to appeal the penalty in court.