Attorneys in Tonkon Torp’s Government Solutions group were victorious for new City Councilmember Rene Gonzalez in the first judicial examination of Portland’s Small Donor Elections program. Under the program rules, candidates receive a 9-to-1 match on the first $20 they receive from a donor. In turn, the candidate is not allowed to take “in-kind contributions” from businesses. The program was used for the first time in the 2022 midterm election cycle and interpreting its rules was novel for all parties.
In September, during the height of the campaign and in the aftermath of Gonzalez’s campaign headquarters in downtown Portland being vandalized (the first time), the Program Director levied $77,140 in fines to the Gonzalez campaign. The allegation was that the Gonzalez campaign had unlawfully received discounted office space. The exorbitant fine was based on the Director’s calculation of fair market value of the space, which it obtained through an online search of downtown property listings. To make matters worse, the Director decided to improperly withhold final matching funds of $71,000 that the Gonzalez campaign was otherwise entitled to for the final voter outreach just before the election.
The attorneys’ preparation for the one-day evidentiary hearing in Salem included close review of the relevant and related rules, drafting a brief on very short notice, and working with three experts and lay witnesses who ultimately testified in support of the prevailing argument that the reality of downtown Portland’s commercial real estate market was vastly different from the base market value cited by the Director in the fine.
The result was a complete victory for Tonkon Torp and the Gonzalez campaign. Senior Administrative Law Judge Joe Allen revoked the $77,000 fine on October 27, and the $71,000 in withheld matching funds was released the following day. Moreover, based on Judge Allen’s decision, the Portland Auditor withdrew two additional fines it had levied against the Gonzalez campaign for the same alleged conduct.
The successful appeal is a noteworthy example of how Tonkon Torp’s government solutions attorneys can help campaigns and others address challenges—sometimes through negotiation and sometimes, like here, through a complete victory in the legal system.