Four years ago, when attempting to sum up a 21-candidate field for Seattle mayor, I wrote the following caution about the clear front-runner, Jenny Durkan:
“One worry I have is that she’ll run a top-down shop at City Hall — as suggested by her own favored hashtag, ‘#bosslady.’ ”
That turned out to be quite the understatement. Bosslady, in the final year of her one term as Seattle mayor, has ended up presiding over such a closed shop that it took two whistleblowers coming forward to tell some stunning news: The mayor’s text messages for the period when the city was erupting in protest and violence last summer have inexplicably gone missing.
“It’s a bit Nixonian, isn’t it?” says David Perez, a lawyer at Perkins Coie and one of many around town who is seeking city records to shed light on what really happened during last year’s protests. “What we’re talking about here is a monthslong attempt at a cover-up, about one of the most volatile and important periods in city history.”
The reason this matters goes beyond just the mishandling of public records. It puts Seattle at increased legal risk in a slew of court cases, where judges tend to frown when one side isn’t straight with the evidence.
The emerging explanation from City Hall is that the mayor’s phone was mistakenly set to delete text messages after 30 days. She thought the messages were being saved somehow, such as in a data cloud. But it was discovered, last August, that 10 months of messages were missing — including during the controversial June 2020 period, when protesters took over Capitol Hill, the police abandoned their precinct and all hell broke loose.
I don’t understand why, if important texts that are part of the public record are being deleted after 30 days, it would take 10 months to realize this. But set aside the technical explanation of how the records got deleted. What really matters is what allegedly happened next: The city hid this information for months.
As an investigation summed up, Durkan’s office had engaged in “efforts to keep from public view the fact that your text messages from August 28, 2019 to June 25, 2020 no longer exist on your City phone or in any cloud-based account associated with your City phone.”
According to the investigation, Durkan’s office went to almost comical lengths to hide it. One public records request sought “all communications from the Mayor’s office since June 6, 2020 that mention the East Precinct,” but it was not fulfilled because it didn’t specify that the “Mayor’s office” actually meant Durkan.
“Does not apply to her,” the in-house counsel, Michelle Chen, wrote.
“The Mayor is of course part of the Mayor’s Office,” the investigative report noted (after which it could have added “duh”). But most crucially, the report concluded that Durkan’s people had stooped to this level of hyperliteral parsing precisely to cover over that the texts were lost. (Durkan’s office has not yet addressed the report’s specific findings — she told Q13 News this past week she couldn’t comment until that official response is completed).
These records are highly sought after by protesters suing the city over allegations of police brutality during the standoffs last summer; by the families of those killed in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone who contend the city failed to provide rescue aid; and by scores of businesses on Capitol Hill that accuse the city of “deliberate indifference” in ceding city blocks to what at times became anarchy.
The key question in these cases is: Who ordered it? Who authorized the use of tear gas and other police tactics at various protests? Who, if anyone, told the police to abandon the area’s East Precinct building? It’s important for history and transparency and democracy, of course, but it also matters legally.
With the records deleted, and then this alleged cover-up, it’s possible the courts could now simply presume the missing evidence weighs against the city. That’s an outcome that could cost Seattle millions of dollars in settlement or judgment costs.
“Destroying evidence has increased the city’s exposure in all these cases, there’s no question about that,” said Perez, who is representing Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County in the police tear gas case.
Again, it’s only due to two whistleblowers that we’re talking about this at all. As often happens, one is currently out of a job, the other on unpaid leave, over fears about retaliation. In a just world they would be welcomed back to #bosslady’s City Hall and given some sort of sunlight democracy award.
As for the text messages, if they can’t be recovered or supplemented with other information, lawyers may be forced to try to depose Durkan and other top city officials and put them under oath, Perez said.
That would be a sorry and sad but maybe fitting end. With the pandemic, the protests and the ongoing crisis at the city’s Police Department, this has been an extremely difficult time to be a Seattle official. I have tried to avoid harsh or knee-jerk judgments, as I don’t feel there was one obvious “right” decision to be made in those tumultuous moments last summer on Capitol Hill.
But now? Once they start hiding stuff, it’s hard to conclude much but that they seriously screwed it up. And they know it.