King County prosecutor requests criminal probe of missing texts of former mayor, police chief

Aug 19, 2022, 12:00 PM
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks at a press conference on March 28, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The mayor and other leaders from Washington state discussed the deployment of a new field hospital at CenturyLink Field Event Center which is expected to create at least 150 hospital beds for non-COVID-19 cases and will include 300 soldiers from the 627th Army Hospital at Fort Carson, Colorado. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The King County Prosecutor’s Office does not typically request criminal investigations by law enforcement, but outgoing Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is making an exception in the case of the missing text messages of Seattle’s former mayor.

“On July 28, Dan Satterberg asked King County Sheriff Cole-Tindall to put together a structured investigation into the missing text messages, and we’ve been told the Sheriff’s Office has done so,” said Satterberg’s spokesperson, Casey McNerthney, in an e-mailed statement to KIRO Newsradio.

As first reported by the Seattle Times, a spokesperson for Sheriff Cole-Tindall confirmed the department was “in the early stages of reviewing the matter,” offering no additional detail.

Last year, a whistle-blower revealed that 10 months of Durkan’s texts had vanished, including from the period in 2020 when the city was contending with racial justice protests over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the creation of the CHOP, riots, and the abandonment of SPD’s East Precinct.

Still questions over timeline of Mayor Durkan’s missing texts in wake of forensic report

Later, the Seattle Times uncovered several other city leaders also had not kept their text messages from roughly the same period, including then-Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins, and several SPD commanders.

Texts of elected and public officials are public records and must be retained for at least two years. Knowingly destroying them before then is a felony under state law.

The Times eventually sued the city over the missing texts – a lawsuit that settled earlier this year with the city agreeing to pay nearly $200,000 while creating a series of reforms in releasing and retaining records.

The city admitted no fault.

With Durkan out of office and Best stepping down, the demand for answers and accountability had somewhat dissipated, but not to Satterberg, who noted multiple people calling for accountability as part of the reason he asked for the criminal investigation.

“The case had never been referred to us, and typically we don’t ask for an investigation to be conducted,” Satterberg said in a statement to KIRO Newsradio. “But in recent weeks and months, I heard from people in the community that this matter was important to them and I considered it my responsibility to make this request to the Sheriff before the end of my term.

“It wasn’t clear to me that anyone was going to start this investigation without prompting. Just like the public’s right to an open courtroom, people have a right to know what is in public documents – including text messages,” he added.

There had been multiple calls for an investigation, including from the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and also City Councilmember Andrew Lewis earlier this year following the release of a forensic analysis related to multiple lawsuits over the city’s response to the 2020 protests. That analysis found Durkan’s phone had been set manually in July of 2020 to auto-delete texts after 30 days, but did not determine who changed the setting. The former mayor said she did not change the setting and that the city’s IT department managed maintenance and configuration of her phones and had worked on it that July.

The IT department said it was not its policy to change the retention settings on phones.

Best said in an earlier deposition that she had periodically deleted text messages and the analysis backed that up.

Durkan and Best have not responded to requests for comment about Satterberg’s call for an investigation.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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King County prosecutor requests criminal probe of missing texts of former mayor, police chief