Washington’s voter-enacted public-records laws ought to be governmental officials’ guiding principles — not doormats to trample past. The disappearance of thousands of text messages between high-level city officials from the height of 2020’s dramatic protests and police actions ought to be investigated like a crime took place — because that’s what the law says the situation rises to.
Instead, leaders at multiple levels of government are shrugging off this breach of the people’s trust. One after another, they are failing their clear-as-day duty to protect public records.
Don’t lose the central truth: The public didn’t get the information it was entitled to because messages went missing. There should be consequences if deliberate actions caused that. State law clearly lays out that it is a felony offense for anyone to “willfully and unlawfully remove, alter, mutilate, destroy, conceal or obliterate” a public record.
An investigation must be opened about the 2,000-plus text messages deleted from the cellphones of top officials, including then-Mayor Jenny Durkan, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins and then-Police Chief Carmen Best, as protesters filled the streets and clashed with police, who abandoned the East Precinct.
Last month, 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.
That 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.
But none of this means the significant harm done to the principle of real-time accountability is water under the bridge. A crime may have been committed here, by powerful people. Which of our leaders, almost all Democrats friendly with each other, will step up and answer that question?
Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office should investigate whether state law has been broken. Ferguson has the power to open an investigation at the request of King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg or Gov. Jay Inslee. Yet, neither has stepped up. They each owe voters clear answers why. This editorial board asked with unsatisfying results.
A spokesperson for Inslee’s office said he had heard of no request for the governor to get involved. Satterberg’s office, too, pointed fingers elsewhere. A spokesperson said county prosecutors typically require an investigating agency — usually, police — to bring over a case to take action, and haven’t been invited by the Attorney General to be more proactive.
A Monday report by axios.com found other concentric circles of blame-shifting, with Mayor Bruce Harrell and SPD Chief Adrian Diaz joining the chorus crying “not my job” to duck this long-simmering political imbroglio.
All it takes is a short, formal letter from the governor or county prosecutor to kick-start the state investigation. That’s how Inslee sent Ferguson to investigate the bizarre actions of Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, which produced misdemeanor charges. Inslee, Satterberg — or both — must act, not continue to officiously duck this responsibility.
Ferguson did not shy away from hot political issues when he was filing lawsuit after lawsuit against the Trump administration. He should invite the chance to provide definitive answers about Seattle’s travesty of transparency, which have been inexcusably long in coming.
Any of these incumbents or those seeking higher office later have a chance now to show they care about open government. Or show they don’t. Either way, voters should take notice.
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