Report: Seattle mayor’s office avoided answering records requests for missing text messages

May 7, 2021, 8:42 AM | Updated: 10:27 am
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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

An investigation into a whistleblower complaint revealed that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office failed to properly handle a series of public records requests, after it discovered that 10-months of the mayor’s text messages had gone missing.

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Durkan’s legal counsel, Michelle Chen, discovered in August of 2020 that Durkan’s text messages between August 2019 and June 2020 had not been retained. According to whistleblower complaints from Public Records Officers Stacy Irwin and Kim Ferreiro, Chen later directed them to “narrowly interpret 48 pending requests … identified as requesting the Mayor’s text messages,” in an attempt to conceal the fact that the messages were missing.

“Irwin and Ferreiro were also directed not to inform requestors that their requests were being interpreted to exclude the Mayor’s text messages,” the SEEC’s investigation reads. “As a result, at least three requests were closed without the requestors being informed regarding the Mayor’s Office’s narrowed interpretation.”

That narrow interpretation included requests for messages to and from Durkan regarding the withdrawal of police from SPD’s East Precinct last summer, as well as alleged threats to the precinct building. In many of those requests, Chen sought to avoid providing the missing messages by purposefully interpreting terms like “correspondence” and “communications” to not include texts.

Additionally, the Mayor’s Office “sought to obtain copies” of Mayor Durkan’s texts from city employees who had exchanged messages with her to fulfill other records requests. Chen was said to have then directed Irwin and Ferreiro to deliver those recreated messages “without any explanation” as to why they weren’t actually from the mayor’s own devices.

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“At least one requestor noted that the texts were not from the Mayor’s phone and filed an appeal challenging the adequacy of the City’s response,” the SEEC noted.

The SEEC’s investigation did not seek to determine how the mayor’s texts over that 10-month period went missing in the first place, although Durkan’s office told the Seattle Times on Thursday that it was due to an “unknown technology issue,” and that it plans to have them available again soon.

The SEEC gave the mayor’s office 60 days to notify it as to “what action has been taken to address the conduct,” concluding that it had indeed violated the Public Records Act. No specific penalties were recommended beyond that.

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Report: Seattle mayor’s office avoided answering records requests for missing text messages