It was well known that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is running a secretive administration, but a whistleblower complaint last week revealed a bombshell revelation that Durkan likely committed a felony while seeking to shield her personal text messages from the public eye in an apparent coverup. Stacy Irwin, a public records officer in the Mayor’s Office, filed the whistleblower complaint, and she told The Seattle Times that Durkan placed her on unpaid administration leave in apparent retaliation. Irwin’s coworker Kim Ferreiro supported her whistleblower complaint and resigned, partly out of fear in retaliation.
The Seattle Times reported that 10 months of text messages from one of the Mayor’s work phones had been deleted in violation of public disclosure laws. The period covered the first four weeks of protests following George Floyd’s murder when Mayor Durkan oversaw the repeated tear gassing of Capitol Hill, brutal police tactics against protesters, and the abandonment of the East Precinct building.
“Durkan’s texts were not retained from late August 2019 to June 25, 2020, a whistleblower investigation report revealed last week,” Lewis Kamb and Daniel Beekman wrote. “In an email Tuesday responding to several days of questions about how that happened, the Mayor’s Office said a forensic analysis has determined that Durkan’s text retention was set to 30 days ‘on one of the three phones issued’ to her at some point between late August 2019 and July 24, 2020.”
“At all times, the Mayor believed and had assumed all her text messages (iMessages and SMS messages), calendar and emails were backed up and available to anyone and would be quickly and fully produced,” Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, said in a statement to The Seattle Times. That claim hardly holds up to scrutiny for a number of reasons.
No innocent mistake
First off, anyone who had submitted a public disclosure request to the Mayor’s Office can testify they are never completed quickly and fully. A request often takes six months and comes heavily redacted typically.
Erica C. Barnett of Publicola noted she had placed six requests specifically asking for text messages and reported she had never been informed that a huge chunk of text messages was missing and had received responses with only emails pretending like the missing text messages never existed — nor has she received an explanation now that the news is out. Apparently, only The Seattle Times and KUOW were deemed worthy of that information. That means they violated public disclosure laws again by not informing journalists who made public records requests for text messages that they had lost them and filling those requests as if nothing was amiss.
Secondly, Durkan had been reprimanded in a 2019 settlement stemming from Deputy Mayors deleting text messages during the head tax debacle. She and the legal counsel (Michelle Chen) she continues to employ were instructed to get “refresher training” on public disclosure rules and recordkeeping practices. To proceed to destroy 10 months of text messages within the next year does not seem an accident. It would appear either grossly negligent or a purposeful coverup.
A Mayor already reprimanded for deleting text messages setting her phone to delete text messages after 30 days better be very sure they were being backed up elsewhere. A responsible public servant would verify before choosing this setting, which isn’t a default. Safer options of deleting text messages after a year or never deleting them were sitting right there. The claim of ignorance here is hard to take.
Thirdly, the context suggests a coverup. These suspicions are bolstered by the fact that five members of senior command at the Seattle Police Department also deleted their text messages. That means the question of who ordered the abandonment of East Precinct hasn’t been definitively answered, with both Durkan and former Police Chief Carmen Best denying they gave the order. It’s possible a subordinate made the call independently as they claim, but without the text messages to confirm this story, it’s a very convenient explanation.
City Attorney Pete Holmes is investigating the whistleblower complaint and found that both Police Chief Best and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins had deleted or lost their text messages from June. “The six other officials whose texts weren’t retained, per [City Attorney spokesperson Dan] Nolte, include four members of the Police Department’s command staff: Chris Fisher, Eric Greening, Valarie Anderson and Deanna Nollette,” Kamb and Beekman reported. While Scoggins’ text messages were apparently lost when he got locked out of his phone, Nolte said they are still investigating why Best’s text messages disappeared.
Mayoral candidates react, spar with each other
The scandalous news elicited a variety of responses from candidates running to replace Durkan as mayor. Andrew Grant Houston is the only candidate to specifically call for Mayor Durkan’s removal and reiterated his support for the campaign to recall Durkan, which wasn’t able to convince a judge to allow the recall measure to proceed last year — though that campaign hadn’t had the full public records to make their case.
“The answer is not more systems and Seattle Process. It’s not ‘elect me, I’m a good one’ and calls for less bureaucracy. It’s not punting the issue to someone else as someone who themselves deletes communications when it no longer serves them but certainly haven’t taken a different stance either,” Houston wrote in a statement. “The answer is removing our current Mayor who, time and time again, has shown us she is incapable of leading and following the law, even as a career prosecutor. We’ve called for Durkan’s resignation and/or recall for a year now. This is long overdue.”
As Council President, Lorena González is in the unique position to bring about out her proposed accountability measures — granted that power is limited in scope. Recent entry into the Mayoral race, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller is in the opposite position of being a part of the administration in coverup and cleanup mode, and seems to have sidestepped the issue.
Meanwhile Colleen Echohawk, called on Washington State Attorney General (AG) Bob Ferguson to investigate the Mayor, which he is yet to take her up on. In her letter, she cast shade on the idea this was just a innocent series of accidents:
“Perhaps there genuinely was an ‘unknown technological issue’ that simultaneously affected the Mayor, the Police Chief and the Fire Chief, in which case the City should immediately undertake a significant security assessment of those communication systems,” Echohawk’s letter to the AG’s office reads. “Or, perhaps they conspired to destroy evidence and violate the law to cover up their actions and escape the unavoidable public scrutiny of incredibly divisive decisions.”
González has proposed putting together an independent office to manage recordkeeping and public disclosure requests in partnership with the City Attorney’s Office. Fellow candidate Jessyn Farrell, meanwhile, argued that amounts to government waste and a symbolic non-solution: “This is why our city’s leaders have failed to solve big problems like homelessness. Rather than exercising fiscal discipline tethered to our values, they are just adding process after process at the taxpayers’ expense,” she tweeted.
Whether leaders who claim to be “tethered to our values” will stay that way in the heat of a scandal is a pretty big leap of faith. Mayor Durkan has made a mockery of public disclosure laws and basic transparency. To restore institutional trust after such a scandal-prone, bumbling administration will likely take more than pinky swears.
This article has been updated with Colleen Echohawk’s statement.
Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.