May 31, 2022 - News

Seattle leaders won't probe deleted texts from 2020 protests

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz and City Attorney Ann Davison.
Photos: Lewis Kamb/Axios, Karen Ducey/Getty Images, Seattle Channel screenshot

None of Seattle's new city leaders is stepping up to launch — or even call for — an investigation into whether former Mayor Jenny Durkan, former police chief Carmen Best or anyone else broke the law when potentially key text messages exchanged during the 2020 racial justice protests were deleted from their city-issues phones.

Driving the news: Mayor Bruce Harrell and interim police chief Adrian Diaz each told Axios this month they have no authority to order a criminal probe into Durkan, Best and other city officials.

What they're saying: "It's not the mayor's job to be the prodder ... of multiple investigations," said Harrell, who called for an investigation into the texts last year while running for mayor.

  • "I don't have that ability to, you know, say, 'Okay, we need to order (an investigation),'" Diaz said. "It's not in my purview."

Details: Each also said it was up to City Attorney Ann Davison or Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to make the call.

Yes, but: Ferguson's office told Axios it can't investigate without a referral from the governor or county prosecutor.

The latest: Davison's office told Axios last week, in its first detailed statement about the matter, that it "has seen no basis to request or conduct a criminal investigation of the missing text messages from current or former city officials."

Why it matters: Anyone who willfully destroys or conceals a public record is guilty of a felony in Washington.

  • But more than a year after the public first learned about the missing text messages from a city ethics investigation, no one has been held accountable for deleting them.
  • The comments from Harrell, Diaz and Davison this month are the most definitive to date indicating that likely no one ever will be.
  • The text messages are both public records that are required to be kept under state law and potential evidence in multiple pending lawsuits against the city over its handling of the 2020 protests.

Catch up quick: The missing texts overlap with a controversial period in June 2020, when police used violence to quell demonstrators and abandoned the East Precinct, and the city allowed protesters to take over six-square blocks of Capitol Hill.

  • Durkan and Best's messages could be crucial in understanding how government officials responded to one of the most tumultuous periods in Seattle's history.
  • Already, the missing texts have proved costly to taxpayers: The city attorney's office spent more than $400,000 on a forensic analysis to try to recover them and $200,000 to The Seattle Times to settle a public records suit about them.

What they're saying: "After significant scrutiny, no evidence has appeared to suggest intentional wrongdoing or deliberate destruction of records," Davison's office said in its statement to Axios.

Reality check: That statement appears to contradict findings of the forensic analysis, commissioned last year by Davison's predecessor, Pete Holmes, in response to the lawsuits over the protests.

  • That analysis, released after Davison took office in February, revealed that Best testified in a November 2021 deposition that she "periodically deleted" her texts and found data to support that.
  • It also found Durkan's texts likely vanished after someone manually set her phone to automatically delete messages older than 30 days.
  • Though many of Durkan's deleted texts were recovered from other people's devices, about 2,024 could not be found, per the analysis.

The other side: Durkan said she accidentally dropped her phone into salt water and denied setting her replacement phone to automatically delete messages.

Between the lines: Davison's office didn't respond to follow-up questions asking to specify what "scrutiny" it undertook and whether it should ask for an outside review due to its own conflicts.

  • Davison is serving as both the decider of whether to investigate the missing texts and the defender of lawsuits related to them.

Flashback: While running for mayor, Harrell not only said the missing texts should be investigated, but that Durkan should consider resigning over them.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the AG's office won't investigate the texts unless it gets a referral from the governor or county prosecutor (not local law enforcement officials).

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