A long-awaited forensic analysis has provided some clarity on how former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s text messages went missing from her phone. However, the critical questions of why they were deleted and who did so, in violation of public records law, remain a mystery.
Mayor Bruce Harrell should call for an independent investigation into this law-flouting morass. Transparency and accountability — both of which have been in short supply since the missing texts became public knowledge in May — demand an answer.
The analysis, which investigated what happened to the texts but was unable to recover them, found that a setting on Durkan’s phone was changed in July 2020 to delete any texts 30 days or older. That option was reverted to the default setting of keeping messages “forever” later that month. An option to store texts in the cloud was also set to “disable and delete” in early July.
All told, more than 2,000 text messages were deleted. While many have been recovered from other devices, some are still missing, including from a critical period in 2020 when Black Lives Matter protests roiled the city.
Durkan told The Seattle Times the report validates her position that she didn’t delete any messages. She again pointed the finger at the city’s information technology department, which “configured, issued and maintained” her phones.
“As I have said all along, I did not change the retention settings on my phone and intentionally delete any data. The forensic report confirms my actions did not delete messages from the phone,” Durkan said via email.
Her statement is disingenuous, as the report says no such thing. The truth would be better served if Durkan had used her experience as a federal prosecutor to get to the bottom of what happened while she was in office. Instead, she is trying to use her legal acumen to gaslight her way out of this mess.
And what a mess it is, one that is likely to cost taxpayers in court.
The missing texts came to light after a whistleblower complaint led to an investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which found the mayor’s former legal counsel violated public records law when she tried to conceal the texts had vanished. The counsel has since resigned, and the whistle-blowers are suing the city claiming retaliation.
Seattle is also facing several lawsuits related to its reaction to the 2020 social-justice protests, including over police tactics and use of force. Texts from then-Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best’s phone are also missing, as well as from several other city officials, including members of police command staff and fire Chief Harold Scoggins.
The report noted that in a sworn deposition taken in November 2021, Best testified she periodically deleted texts, an apparent violation of the law. The report’s scope did not include the other officials.
Mayor Harrell must ensure that the city has better policies in place to preserve public records, so this doesn’t happen again. With Durkan and Best out of office, he must also fight the urge to let this quietly go away.
Harrell has said he is open to an independent investigation. Better idea: He should call for one, whether through the attorney general or the King County prosecutor. The public deserves to know the truth.