King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has asked Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall to put together an investigation into the deletion of text messages from the phones of then-Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and other city leaders in 2020.
“It wasn’t clear to me that anyone was going to start this investigation without prompting,” Satterberg said Thursday in an emailed statement. “Just like the public’s right to an open courtroom, people have a right to know what is in public documents — including text messages.”
Satterberg’s office requested the investigation July 28, spokesperson Casey McNerthney said.
“We are in the early stages of reviewing the matter,” said Cole-Tindall spokesperson Cynthia Sampson, giving no other information.
Last year, a whistleblower in Durkan’s office revealed that the mayor’s texts from a 10-month period — including tumultuous weeks in early summer 2020 when police deployed tear gas against Black Lives Matter protest crowds and vacated the East Precinct — were missing.
The Seattle Times subsequently discovered that a number of other leaders had failed to retain their texts from approximately the same period, including fire Chief Harold Scoggins and the police chief at the time, Carmen Best.
Anyone who willfully destroys a public record that’s supposed to be kept is guilty of a felony under state law. Most elected and public officials in Washington, including mayors, are required to take training that include information about retaining records.
In February of this year, a forensic analysis, commissioned in response to lawsuits over the city’s handling of the 2020 protests, indicated that Durkan’s phone was manually set in July 2020 to automatically delete texts after 30 days.
The analysis didn’t determine who changed the text-retention setting on Durkan’s phone. Durkan has said she did not delete the texts and that most of her deleted texts have been reproduced from other phones.
She’s said the city’s information technology department “configured, issued and maintained” her phones and worked on them in July 2020 to fix problems. The information technology department has said it’s not the department’s practice to change retention settings to delete messages.
The forensic analysis didn’t review why at least seven other officials, including Scoggins, Best and several police commanders under Best, failed to retain their texts from early summer 2020. But the analysis did find data consistent with testimony Best gave in a deposition last year that she had periodically deleted her texts.
The analysis couldn’t find backups of Durkan’s and Best’s texts from May 2020 and June 2020. It indicated that Durkan’s phone was at a certain point set to “disable and delete” texts stored in the cloud.
Several state rules and laws, civil and criminal, govern the retention and destruction of public records, including texts.
Guidelines for preserving public records require that texts and other communications by local elected officials about public business be kept for at least two years before being transferred to the state’s archives “for appraisal and selective retention.”
Durkan and Best didn’t immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.
Following the release of the forensic analysis, the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis separately called for an outside investigation into the matter.
Mayor Bruce Harrell, who succeeded Durkan in January, said in February he would consult with City Attorney Ann Davison’s office to determine an appropriate course of action. He didn’t subsequently share any next steps.
During last year’s Seattle elections, mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk asked state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to investigate the missing texts. Ferguson’s office said only local law enforcement could investigate. At the time, Satterberg’s office said it had not received a referral about the matter from any law enforcement agency.
“The case had never been referred to us, and typically we don’t ask for an investigation to be conducted,” Satterberg said Thursday in his statement. “But in recent weeks and months, I heard from people in the community that this matter was important to them and I considered it my responsibility to make this request to the sheriff before the end of my term.”
Material from the Seattle Times archives was included in this report.