The University of Washington has agreed to pay $97,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by The Seattle Times, which alleged the university failed to provide public records a reporter requested about coronavirus testing of student-athletes.
The reporter, Mike Reicher, requested emails of the UW’s head of sports medicine last year to learn more about the Pac-12’s decision to partner with a manufacturer of rapid coronavirus tests.
UW said it did not find any responsive records. But The Times obtained emails that included the UW official’s emails from another Pac-12 university and provided them to the UW to show that its search was inadequate.
The Times, represented by attorney Katherine George, sued in January. The paper argued that the university’s response violated the state Public Records Act, which applies to public agencies like UW.
UW denies that it withheld records and says it was an “oversight” that they were missed in its initial search. In the settlement reached this month, UW did not admit liability but said it was taking steps to improve its response to records requests.
“The University of Washington is committed to transparency and responsiveness in regard to public records,” university spokesperson Victor Balta said. “We are pleased to have this issue resolved and continue to take very seriously our accountability to the public as a state institution.”
UW said it had recently created an online records portal that allows for online payments and access to records, and that it received funding to hire two or three new records officers. As part of the settlement, the university also agreed to be receptive to proposals and to regularly meet with The Seattle Times to discuss issues.
Seattle Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores said she looks forward to working with the university on reforms.
“This case was important to The Times because so much of the university’s work has a direct impact on people,” Matassa Flores said. “Whether it’s about COVID precautions for student athletes or other key decisions, the UW should be open and transparent.”
The state doesn’t enforce the public records act by holding agencies accountable for violations, but it allows requesters to sue and seek financial penalties if they believe the law is being flouted.
The Pac-12’s partnership with test manufacturer Quidel ultimately cost UW more than $500,000. And it came after internal debate and warnings about the test’s accuracy, which were brought to light through reporting by The Seattle Times.
After the deal was announced, Reicher requested emails sent or received by UW’s Dr. Kim Harmon, who is also a member of the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee. He requested emails that mentioned Quidel during a 12-day period around when the deal was announced.
Balta, the university spokesperson, said there was “no effort to deny access” to the records. He previously told The Times that the university did a “reasonable search” for messages and did not find any.
Reicher appealed the response, saying it “defies common sense” that there would be no related records, as the UW official had been publicly involved in the partnership. The university denied the appeal, reiterating that no records were found.
But emails obtained by The Times from Oregon State University showed that Harmon was involved in email discussions about Quidel.
The Seattle Times sued UW, arguing that it could have found and produced those records but failed to conduct an adequate search.
Following the lawsuit, the university took another look and located about 63 pages of responsive records, which it provided to the paper.
Among those records was an email from UW President Ana Mari Cauce expressing concern that Pac-12 universities might be “duped” by Quidel, as well as an email in which Harmon said she didn’t want to give the impression that they’d be seen as “using our athletes as guinea pigs.”
UW found about a dozen more pages after The Times said it believed more records were missing, George said.
The Quidel rapid tests allowed the Pac-12 to hold a truncated 2020 football season, with the UW forced to cancel three games. Throughout the Pac-12, nearly one in every five athletes in high-contact sports tested positive for the virus, and the conference grappled with two outbreaks.