The Oregon Department of Human Services was persuaded to release foster-parent records about Seattle Mayor Ed Murray because of his standing as a public official and because he urged media to get them.
Mayor Ed Murray’s standing as a public official and his words during a news conference last month helped persuade Oregon officials to release records from a decades-old child-welfare investigation.
The May 1984 assessment report — among more than 100 pages of records contained in the Oregon Department of Human Services’ (DHS) foster-parent file on Murray — was recovered from a district field office after The Seattle Times submitted a public-records request to the agency in April.
In response, the state initially withheld some records and heavily redacted others containing information about the child-abuse investigation.
The Times appealed. Among reasons the agency should disclose details from the file that were initially deemed private, The Times provided the alleged victim’s authorization to release details of the abuse investigation, and cited Murray’s statements urging the media to pursue existing records.
On July 5, the agency released the information.
“We used our discretion to determine disclosure was in the public interest to protect other children and prevent anyone else from being put in a similar situation,” said Caroline Burnell, manager of the legal unit for DHS’ public-affairs office. “A person in a position of power and authority could use that authority to coerce or otherwise force people into a vulnerable position.”
At one point, agency employees thought the records had been destroyed.
In 2008, a department representative informed a Seattle Times reporter checking into the sexual-abuse allegations by Jeff Simpson — Murray’s former foster son — that the agency had no records of an investigation involving Murray.
That year, Simpson had contacted lawmakers and media organizations in Washington, claiming Murray had sexually abused him more than three decades earlier in Portland.
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By then, other agencies investigating Simpson’s allegations in 1984, including the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and the Portland Police Bureau, had purged their files. After DHS informed The Times it also had no records, the newspaper decided not to publish Simpson’s claims in 2008.
This year, another accuser made similar accusations against Murray.
When The Times learned that Delvonn Heckard, of Kent, planned to file a lawsuit alleging Murray repeatedly had paid him for sex when Heckard was a drug-addicted teenager in the 1980s, reporters contacted Simpson and another man, Lloyd Anderson. Both said Murray had similarly abused them as teenagers in Portland.
A lawyer for Murray denounced the allegations.
“The previous accusers were investigated by law enforcement and the press and found to be not credible and their claims meritless,” attorney Robert Sulkin told reporters in April.
The Times resubmitted requests with DHS this year to check again for any investigation records. In late April, the agency located Murray’s foster-parent file. It was marked, “Do not purge this file see abuse summary.” The file contained investigation reports on Simpson’s abuse claims.
The file wasn’t found in 2008 because DHS used a different system that tracked old abuse investigations through files of foster children, not foster parents, according to the agency. Simpson’s file had been destroyed by then. When it was, the investigation records were placed in Murray’s foster-parent file and agency officials “noted to never destroy it in order to prevent Mr. Murray from being a foster parent if he applied again,” Burnell said. Murray’s file wasn’t digitized and uploaded into the state’s computer system until about 2011, Burnell said.
“Anyone looking for that file in 2008 wouldn’t have found it,” she said.
Last month Heckard dropped his lawsuit, and at a subsequent news conference on June 14 the mayor referenced Simpson’s allegations, saying the press didn’t seek records from the time that demonstrated his innocence.
The Times emailed a video link of the news conference to DHS two days later, noting those statements.
The agency considered the totality of information provided when deciding to release the records, Burnell said. They included the Child Protective Services assessment finding Simpson’s allegations valid; a detective’s reports citing two additional witnesses; and a letter from the District Attorney’s Office indicating prosecutors had not determined Simpson was lying.
Murray said Thursday he’d never been informed of the CPS assessment and hadn’t previously seen the other records. He added that focusing on reports contained in his foster-parent file without considering other information — including Simpson’s criminal background and behavioral problems — provides an incomplete story.