Washington state legislators know there are far fewer reporters holding them and other public officials accountable.

They also know that civic literacy is down, along with trust in government and other institutions.

So it’s deeply disappointing to see legislators compound these problems by dramatically increasing government secrecy.

That’s happening this year with several dubious moves to hide what public officials are doing from the public.

The Legislature itself is backtracking on recent promises to be transparent by randomly hiding legislators’ public records, claiming an illusory “privilege” placing them above the law.

Perhaps even more insidious is a proposal that would make it easy for virtually all state and school employees to become invisible, unidentifiable and unaccountable to the public paying their salary.


This is surprising coming from a Legislature that in recent years vowed to bring more transparency and accountability to public agencies, as part of criminal justice reforms prompted by outrage over police misconduct.

With that important work barely started, the Legislature is now considering a bill creating a massive loophole, and potential death blow, to the state’s once vaunted Public Records Act.

House Bill 1533 would allow state or school employees to completely exempt themselves from the Public Records Act, by submitting a statement that they are concerned about being harassed.

While the bill’s motivations appear good, to protect victims of domestic violence and harassment, this bill could actually make Washingtonians less safe from potential abusers.

That’s because HB 1533 could make it nearly impossible for the public to obtain records about potentially dangerous people working for the government and with vulnerable populations.

Even worse, it would make it impossible to know if and how government agencies are investigating problematic employees and preventing them from harming others.


This is not hypothetical.

In 2021, The Seattle Times relied on state employee records to report on how a corrections officer tormented and abused a young mother before she killed herself in a jail cell in 2019.

The guard had a long, documented history of abusive behavior but was hired anyway by the city of Forks and again by the state Department of Corrections.

“We wouldn’t have been able to understand who this guard was and why his being hired by Forks was such a mistake if we wouldn’t have had access to the DOC files,” reporter Mike Carter told me.

“You just had to have that information,” Carter said. “It is ridiculous to think this officer, who had an extensive history of misconduct, being racially insensitive, etc. — if he could have just signed an affidavit or had someone sign an affidavit for him and put that stuff in a black box, where would the justice be for that family?”

As KING 5 later reported, the Teamsters union had appealed the guard’s earlier suspension and termination for sexual harassment. Under a settlement with the union, the state agreed to rescind the guard’s termination and give him his job back.

That same union is now a driving force behind HB 1533, which began in part as a vehicle for its members in the Department of Corrections to exempt themselves from public records disclosures.


For sure, corrections employees have legitimate concerns about being harassed and stalked.

But there are existing ways for public employees to add protections, such as obtaining protective orders from a court.

What HB 1533 does is lower the bar to obtain protection to the point that any public employee can simply file an affidavit saying they are being harassed, and permanently obscure public records about them.

“It would be the bad actors who would have the motivation to do this and the ability to do this,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, an attorney specializing in public records law who has represented The Seattle Times.

Earl-Hubbard also represents domestic violence victims.

“I’m very well aware of the concerns, the fears, the risks, the dangers. There are legal systems in place — they’re not perfect but they’re there — that we can already utilize,” she said.

The risk is that lawmakers will unintentionally make it easier for abusive people in the system to become invisible. HB 1533 would also shroud records showing whether the government is properly handling such problems, shielding both individuals and agencies from accountability.


“Whenever you shut down records about government you also shut down the ability to learn about government and see if government is behaving well or badly in terms of protecting employees and that sort of thing,” Earl-Hubbard said. “All of that is about protecting everybody, the public as well as the employees. Sometimes these employee privacy bills forget that … we need to know, what did they do when someone came forward and said, ‘I was harassed’?”

I fear that HB 1533 could also give public employees a false sense of security. It’s so easy to find information about people online nowadays, the Public Records Act is probably the last place someone looking to do harm would turn.

Records requests create a paper trail identifying the requester, responses are slow and employees may be notified of the request.

Besides, I’ve yet to hear a single example of where people HB 1533 purports to help were harmed because of information that was only found via a public records request.

It’s noble that legislators want to do more to prevent people from being victimized.

But the unintended consequences of HB 1533, including a new era of government secrecy making it impossible to identify problematic employees and hold their employers accountable, may do more harm than good.