Seattle to pay $2.3M to whistleblowers over ex-mayor Durkan’s 2020 deleted texts
May 12, 2023, 7:52 PM | Updated: May 13, 2023, 7:54 am
SEATTLE (AP) — The city of Seattle will pay $2.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by employees who helped reveal that thousands of then-Mayor Jenny Durkan’s text messages had been deleted in 2020 amid protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The terms of the city’s settlement with Stacy Irwin and Kimberly Ferreiro were finalized this week and released to The Seattle Times through a public disclosure request Friday, the newspaper reported.
After their whistleblower complaint in 2021, further scrutiny showed that texts of other top officials also were not retained from that period in 2020 when police used tear gas against Black Lives Matter protest crowds and temporarily vacated a police precinct during weeks of demonstrations. Protesters also temporarily occupied a small area of the city known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone.
The $2.3 million payout is in addition to nearly $800,000 spent by the city to defend the case.
Irwin and Ferreiro said they were mistreated as public-records officers in Durkan’s office for objecting to how the office was handling requests by reporters and others for records, including Durkan’s texts, according to their lawsuit. They said they were “subjected to scorn, ridicule, abuse and hostility … and the demand to perform illegal acts.”
They were compelled to resign rather than continue to endure the hostile work environment, according to their lawsuit.
The agreement says the settlement isn’t an admission of wrongdoing and prohibits the parties from talking publicly about the settlement amount.
Irwin said she is relieved to end “a dark chapter” in her life, but remains upset about having to rebuild her career and disturbed by what happened.
“There’s been no accountability,” she said. “These officials basically got away with it and the taxpayers are paying.”
Ferreiro described the mayor’s office as a “pressure cooker” and said the experience drove her to move out of Washington. She views the settlement as a win for whistleblowers, but remains a loss for Seattle residents because some questions about the city officials’ actions “will never be answered.”
Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay said in an email that the city attorney’s office is “pleased we were able to resolve this matter.”
Durkan didn’t return a request for comment from the newspaper.
Irwin and Ferreiro became whistleblowers when they told the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission about the mayor’s office mishandling public records requests. An investigation by the ethics commission determined that the mayor’s legal counsel, Michelle Chen, had violated the state Public Records Act by using narrow interpretations of certain requests to exclude Durkan’s missing texts.
An attorney for Chen called the investigation unfair, among other things arguing it failed to account for the involvement of others.
Texts and other communications about public business by local elected officials must be kept for at least two years, under state law. Anyone who willfully destroys a public record that’s supposed to be kept is guilty of a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Durkan’s office initially cited an “unknown technology issue” behind the missing messages. A city-commissioned forensic report later found that Durkan’s phone was likely changed in July 2020 to delete texts automatically after 30 days and was also set to delete texts stored in the cloud.
Other officials with missing 2020 texts included then-police Chief Carmen Best and fire Chief Harold Scoggins, among others. Over 27,000 texts were deleted from Best’s phone, while phones used by Scoggins and others were reset in October 2020, a forensic report found.
Last summer, then-King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg asked Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall to investigate the deletion of Durkan’s texts and those of other city leaders. Cole-Tindall’s office has yet to announce any results.