The Portland Police Association (PPA) and former Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty say they’re happy to be moving on after the PPA and two police officers settled a lawsuit with Hardesty for $680,000 earlier this week.
Hardesty filed suit against the city, the police union that represents rank and file officers, as well as Officers Brian Hunzeker and Kerri Ottoman back in 2021, when police and emergency dispatchers leaked false information about her to the media an in attempt to disparage her.
Hardesty’s settlement with police comes roughly two weeks after a judge sided with Hardesty on several legal claims in a summary judgment ruling, and about a month after the city of Portland issued a public apology to Hardesty and agreed to pay $5,000 to settle its portion of the lawsuit over the leak of false information.
The lawsuit, which initially sought $5 million in damages, stems from an incident in March 2021, when dispatchers with the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) received a call about a hit-and-run crash with minor damage. The white woman whose car was hit misidentified the other driver as Hardesty, who served on the Portland City Council at the time. The damage was minimal, described in legal documents as “a one-centimeter circle” likely caused by a license plate screw from the other vehicle.
Despite limited police staffing at the time, Portland police officers interviewed the caller on the evening of March 3. Then around 1 a.m. on March 4, police went to Hardesty’s house and banged loudly on the door, waking up a neighbor. Hardesty didn’t answer the door.
Court documents show police found out earlier that day that Hardesty previously owned a gold Volvo. The caller's description of the vehicle that hit her and fled was subsequently changed in the official police report, to match the one Hardesty had in 2019.
It was later revealed that Hardesty wasn’t the driver and didn’t own the car involved.
Shortly after the reported hit-and-run, the call log information was shared by BOEC employees with members of the PPA, namely, Hunzeker, who served as union PPA president at the time.
Hunzeker and Ottoman colluded to leak the information to The Oregonian and conservative political group Coalition to Save Portland, in hopes of smearing Hardesty’s character, legal documents show.
The fiasco sparked an internal investigation over the misconduct of city employees, who broke city rules against sharing private information from an emergency call publicly.
That investigation revealed the police officers acted outside the scope of their authority and intentionally sought to discredit Hardesty–who’d called for greater oversight and scrutiny of the Portland Police Bureau–before the 2022 election. Hardesty had also led the call to disband and divert funding for the Gun Violence Reduction Team, citing data suggesting it disproportionately targeted residents of color, and did little to get guns off the street. When the specialized unit was eventually nixed, it sparked a larger misconception that the city was “defunding the police” amid a racial justice uprising following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis law enforcement.
Hunzeker was terminated for his role in the incident, but later reinstated after arbitration.
Earlier this month, attorneys for the PPA, Ottoman, and Hunzeker argued that Hunzeker was exercising his rights to free speech when he conveyed the false information. Circuit Court Judge Lynn Nakamoto ruled otherwise, noting just because an action has elements of speech, doesn’t mean it’s protected speech, as defined by the law.
“Hunzeker was free to speak with the press or to use social media to contest Hardesty’s comments and views and to advance his or PPA’s messages about the protests happening in Portland during Hardesty’s tenure as a city commissioner, which he in fact did,” Nakamoto wrote in a summary judgment ruling. “But I am not persuaded by PPA’s legal argument conflating Hunzeker’s misconduct with speech protected by Article 1, section 8.” Nakamoto also noted that not all of Hunzeker’s actions could be considered speech.
“Procuring a copy of a CAD report during the middle of a criminal investigation when he was not involved in it was not a speech act,” Nakamoto wrote.
Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, president of the PPA, said the decision to settle was made by PPA’s insurance carrier.
“The PPA carries insurance and when litigation is involved, insurance companies must make business decisions about settlement. In this case, the PPA’s insurance carrier made the business decision to settle this case,” Schmautz stated. “The PPA is pleased to have this matter behind it.”
In a public apology to Hardesty issued in August, Mayor Ted Wheeler, on behalf of the city acknowledged the leaks “negatively impacted Commissioner Hardesty’s public image and undermined her efforts to bring about police transformation and reform.”
In a statement this week, Hardesty said she’s thankful the suit against the PPA and individual officers is now resolved.
“This settlement holds the Portland Police Association and the individuals accountable for their wrongful conduct and the unnecessary harm they caused,” Hardesty wrote. “While this settlement does not make me whole, I’m hopeful that shining a light on this unfortunate situation will prevent others from having this burden brought upon them.”