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Pittsburgh ethics board may not hear campaign finance complaints before primary

There seems to be little question that City Councilwoman Darlene Harris has been ignoring Pittsburgh's campaign-finance reporting requirements throughout her mayoral bid.

The Post-Gazette first reported more than a month ago that Mrs. Harris cast doubts about the legality of the provisions, and she has failed to file a required monthly financial report before or since.

But it is not at all clear that the city's Ethics Hearing Board, which monitors compliance with the law, will publicly weigh in on the matter before the May 16 primary itself.

So far, no complaints regarding the law have been filed, and "We have not taken any action" on the matter, said executive director Linda King, after Thursday's monthly meeting of the board.

Under a 2015 ordinance, candidates for city office are required to a new campaign committee for each office they seek, and to file reports documenting their financial activity for the five months preceding an election. That means those running for mayor and city council seats up for election should have begun filing the reports in January, or after they began campaigning. Mrs. Harris is still using the committee she has used to finance her previous council runs, and has yet to report on any financial activity this year.

During Thursday's meeting, which lasted under an hour, there was no discussion of Mrs. Harris' non-compliance, or of a long delay in filings by City Councilman Robert Lavelle, whose failure to file reports this year has also been repeatedly noted in Post-Gazette stories. (Board staff confirmed that Mr. Lavelle filed reports on Wednesday, the day after the Post-Gazette reported that Mr. Lavelle had not met earlier deadlines or his own timeline for when reports would be filed.)

The board can act on complaints filed by citizens, or take up such cases on its own. The city's campaign finance rules allow it to fine candidates $50 for each day a filing is late.

But such a process must begin with an initial investigation by staff, after which a "probable cause panel" will determine if there was sufficient evidence to pursue a more thorough investigation and, potentially, a full hearing.

City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge said that in a clear-cut case, "it shouldn't take that long to investigate" a possible violation, and Ms. King said a probable cause panel could be assembled quickly.

But under the ethics board procedures laid out in the city code, the subject of a complaint must be notified once the probable cause panel determines a full investigation is warranted. The subject then has 30 days to respond. That response becomes part of the ensuing investigation, and if investigators confirm suspicions of a code violation, a public hearing on the matter is held.

Could such a process be completed in time to have an impact on the May 16 primary? "I have no idea," said Ms. Sanchez-Ridge.

"There's a lot of bureaucracy and procedure in place," said Jim Burn, a former state Democratic Party chairman and attorney representing Mrs. Harris. "This goes to the concerns we've had that the law is unenforceable."

Mr. Burn said that if the board did pursue an investigation of Mrs. Harris, "They will get a response, and on our time. We would begin to make a record to show the board, and ultimately the courts, that the measure is unenforceable."

Among the objections, Mr. Burn said, was that the city's ordinance is pre-empted by state law, which already mandates a schedule by which candidates report their financial activity. "If you want to change those deadlines, do it at the state level," he said. "Make it consistent for everyone."

Under the state's reporting schedule, which Mrs. Harris has pledged to follow, she is not required to file another finance report until May 5. The next meeting of the city's ethics board is one day before that.