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Officials knew mayor’s phone setting caused texts to vanish

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 20, 2021

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses a news conference in Seattle on Sept. 2 about changes being made in the city’s police department.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses a news conference in Seattle on Sept. 2 about changes being made in the city’s police department. (Associated Press)
Associated Press

Associated Press

SEATTLE – Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said this spring that 10 months of her missing text messages could be attributed to an “unknown technology issue.”

However, internal emails appear to show officials had already known for months why the texts were gone and when they disappeared, the Seattle Times reported.

And City Attorney Pete Holmes says the initial explanation from Durkan’s office was misleading.

Durkan’s texts were set to automatically delete on a phone she started using in July 2020, shortly after racial justice protests began in the city, according to January emails between the mayor’s office and the city attorney’s office.

That and other emails – among hundreds of pages of records that formed the basis for an ethics investigation that found the mayor’s office had broken the state Public Records Act – also indicate that Durkan’s chief of staff was involved in keeping the public in the dark over the missing texts.

The mayor’s office declined to answer questions about those emails, which The Seattle Times got through a public records request to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

Durkan spokesperson Anthony Derrick instead said “litigation involving the city,” including a lawsuit filed by the Times over alleged violations of the Public Records Act, is expected to produce thousands of documents and information.

Derrick added: “As is usual with such cases, until that thorough and systematic work can be done, it is rarely accurate to make assumptions based on individual records.”

But Holmes told the newspaper his office warned Durkan’s office that publicly attributing the loss to an undetermined tech issue was “untrue.”

“Someone changed the mayor’s settings from retain to delete – that is a deliberate act,” Holmes said.

Under state law and guidelines, local elected officials’ texts and other communications about public business must be retained for at least two years before being transferred to the state archives for further assessment. Anyone who willfully destroys a public record that’s supposed to be kept is guilty of a felony, according to state law. A forensic report on the missing texts is currently overdue.

Seattle could end up paying “tens of millions of dollars in damages and fees” to resolve lawsuits over the Durkan administration’s handling of last year’s protests, and “those damned missing text messages” are complicating the city’s legal defense, Holmes said.

The ethics commission learned about the missing texts in February, when a public records officer in the mayor’s office filed a whistleblower complaint. The records officer, Stacy Irwin, said she had been directed not to inform records requesters that the texts were missing and to “recreate” certain messages from the phones of people with whom the mayor had been texting.

The matter became public in May after the ethics commission issued an investigation report, determining that the legal counsel for Durkan’s office, Michelle Chen, had broken the PRA.

The requesters – including four Times reporters – had sought details about how officials handled the Black Lives Matter protests, the Seattle Police Department’s evacuation of its East Precinct and the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP. At least 48 requests touched on Durkan’s missing texts, the investigation found.

A lawyer representing Chen criticized the investigation as rushed and unfair. A retired judge subsequently hired by the mayor’s office determined it was conducted appropriately.

The city ethics commission’s investigation, carried out by public records lawyer Ramsey Ramerman, focused on how records requests for the texts were handled, rather than how the texts had been lost.

The city attorney’s office hired the Crypsis Group, a private contractor, last year to conduct a forensic analysis on that question. The work has cost the city $201,000 as of July 31. The contractor’s report, initially expected in late June, has yet to be released.

“It isn’t done yet, no,” Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for Holmes, said in an email last week. “The work remains ongoing.”

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