Pittsburgh Councilwoman Darlene Harris again defies city campaign finance rules
Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Darlene Harris is once again flouting Pittsburgh’s campaign finance ordinance, contending the law is illegal, unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Harris, a Democrat running for re-election this year, informed the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board by letter on March 1 that she would not comply with the ordinance requiring candidates for city elected positions to file financial disclosure reports with the board by the first business day in each of the three months prior to an election.
This year’s municipal primary is May 21.
This is the second time Harris has run afoul of the ordinance. In 2017, the board fined her $1,000 after she refused to file reports during her unsuccessful campaign for mayor, according to board meeting minutes. The board never collected the money, according to Harris’ attorney, Jim Burn.
Burn said the ordinance is pre-empted by a state law that requires political candidates to file campaign finance reports with their respective counties. Harris consistently files with Allegheny County, he said.
“The city knows as well as I do that any attempt to enforce an arbitrary fine imposed by an unconstitutional board will be dealt with in court, and they know as well as we do that if they take us to court, we are going to raise the element of preemption, and their house of cards is going to fall, as we see it,” Burn said. “It’s an unenforceable law because it’s unconstitutional.”
At least two other candidates who failed to file timely reports in 2017 during unsuccessful campaigns for City Council paid fines levied by the board, according to the meeting minutes.
Leanne Davis, the board’s executive manager, said members would discuss the Harris situation during a meeting on March 14, but declined further comment.
Harris, 66, of Spring Hill, declined comment and referred questions to Burn.
Dan Gilman, Mayor Bill Peduto’s Chief of Staff, said the board operates as an independent agency and declined further comment. Peduto on Thursday released a public endorsement of Bobby Wilson of Spring Hill, who is running against Harris in the Democratic primary.
“This is not a place for the administration to be involved,” said Gilman, who sponsored legislation while serving on City Council in 2015 overhauling the board and updating the campaign finance ordinance. “These rules were placed under the Ethics Hearing Board which is an independent board for a very important reason, and that is independence.”
Seventeen other candidates running for city council and controller this year met the financial reporting deadline, according to the ethics board website.
Burn, who previously headed the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee and has been involved for years in local politics, said the ordinance sets a “dangerous precedent” for other municipalities to create their own campaign finance rules. He said it could evolve into hundreds of different laws within the state, discourage candidates from running and disenfranchise voters.
“Ms. Harris has been and will remain in compliance with the laws as they currently exist,” he said. “Ms. Harris will file with the county as she always has.”
The county deadline for local candidates to file reports is May 10.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter .