Public records expert: ‘Very suspicious’ that June 2020 texts from Seattle leaders all went missing

May 17, 2021, 8:51 AM | Updated: 10:10 am
coronavirus police seattle, missing text messages...
Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best. (Mayor Durkan, Twitter)
(Mayor Durkan, Twitter)

With questions still surrounding missing June 2020 text messages from a collection of high-ranking Seattle city officials, could there be legal ramifications? Public records expert and Kirkland City Councilmember Toby Nixon spoke to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show to provide some insight.

Seattle mayor’s office avoided answering requests for missing texts

Evidence of the missing texts first surfaced when a whistleblower complaint alleged Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office failed to properly handle a series of public records requests, after it discovered that the mayor’s text messages between August 2019 and June 2020 had gone missing.

Lawsuits filed against the city regarding the CHOP further revealed that Durkan’s texts weren’t the only messages among local leaders from last June that had disappeared, with the list also including then-SPD Chief Carmen Best, Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, and multiple members of SPD’s command staff.

Durkan’s office later claimed that she had inadvertently set her phone to delete messages automatically after 30 days, while it remains unclear how messages from other city leaders also disappeared. As for whether this is indicative of some larger cover-up related to the abandoning of the East Precinct and eventual creation of the CHOP last June, Nixon has his suspicions.

“It is absolutely very suspicious,” he opined. “It’s one thing for one senior official to say ‘my phone was accidentally set wrong,’ but for all of the ones who were involved in these critical decision making processes to somehow say all my messages were accidentally lost, that stinks to high heaven.”

In Durkan’s case, Nixon — who serves as president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government — points out that she may very well have violated the law by setting her phone to delete messages after 30 days, be it willfully or accidentally.

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“All public officials in Washington state are required to receive training in records retention and disclosure,” he said. “There’s really no excuse to not be aware of the fact that based on the content of records, they have to be kept for some period of time.”

“The vast majority of records, including all communications by elected officials, have to be kept at least two years, and in many cases forever,” he added. “After that two years, they have to be assessed by the State Archives for their historical value, and that just didn’t happen here.”

The law is also relatively clear on the consequences for poor recordkeeping, Nixon notes. Knowingly deleting records is a felony, while unknowingly doing so could be considering a failure “to perform a duty imposed upon a public official,” which would be a misdemeanor.

The obstacle, though, could end up being the willingness of King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg or City Attorney Pete Holmes to pursue charges.

“You have to convince a prosecutor to actually file those charges and pursue them,” Nixon said. “Would Pete Holmes or Dan Satterberg really do that? I have my doubts.”

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from noon – 3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Public records expert: ‘Very suspicious’ that June 2020 texts from Seattle leaders all went missing