King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg made the right move by asking for a law enforcement investigation into the thousands of missing text messages between then-Mayor Jenny Durkan and other high-level Seattle officials around the height of 2020’s protests and police actions.
On July 28, Satterberg asked King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall to put together a structured investigation into the missing text messages. “We’ve been told the Sheriff’s Office has done so,” according to the prosecutor’s office.
This is the latest turn in a too-long saga about vital missing public records.
About 2,000-plus text messages were deleted from the cellphones of top officials, including Durkan, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins and then-Police Chief Carmen Best, as protesters filled the streets and clashed with police.
Regarding her phone, Durkan has said the deletions were inadvertent and not intentional.
Last May, the city agreed to spend $199,855 in taxpayer money to settle a Seattle Times lawsuit over these missing messages and the handling of four reporters’ public records requests during that time period.
The settlement came with an agreement that the city will conduct several meaningful public-records reforms. Many but not all of Durkan’s texts were recovered, including by checking the phones of other government officials.
State law is clear: It is a felony offense for anyone to “willfully and unlawfully remove, alter, mutilate, destroy, conceal or obliterate” a public record. This obviously includes text messages.
Getting to the bottom of what happened became a comedy of errors, with Mayor Bruce Harrell, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and other top officials saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t find out what happened.
This is not the equivalent of a “gimme putt” — an inconsequential mistake that can be brushed aside in the sweep of civic history.
Open government is the foundation of democracy. People have a right to information about what their leaders knew, when they knew it, and how they pulled the levers of government.
Credit goes to Satterberg for finally stepping in. Where this investigation may lead is anybody’s guess, but the fact that someone in power finally decided to pursue it should give the public renewed confidence that transparency and accountability still mean something.