Jun 3, 2022 - News

More finger-pointing over deleted text messages, but no probe

Illustration of a question mark with a text bubble.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson's office has said for months it can't investigate a deleted text messages scandal surrounding Seattle's former mayor and police chief unless it first gets a formal referral — but that's not exactly the case.

Reality check: In fact, Ferguson's office routinely has asked King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg for permission to investigate potential felony crimes in the county, and is typically granted that authority when it does.

  • Satterberg's office this week provided Axios with three recent examples of written requests from the AG's office to investigate cases within King County.

What they're saying: "They don't need to wait for a formal letter from us. If the Attorney General's Office wants to investigate, we have never denied their requests for concurrent jurisdiction — on any matter," Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for Satterberg, said in an email to Axios.

  • By contrast, the prosecutor's office doesn't have investigative powers and can only review a case for charges if it gets a referral from local law enforcement, which hasn't happened here, McNerthney said.

The other side: A spokesperson for the AG disputed Satterberg's claims.

  • "Any assertion that we have unique ability to investigate is misinformed," Brionna Aho told Axios.
  • Yes, but: Aho acknowledged for the first time that the AG's office can ask permission to investigate, adding that they only do so in certain cases, such as Medicaid fraud.
  • Aho restated that the authority to investigate still rests with local law enforcement, and if Seattle police have a conflict, it would typically ask the county sheriff's office or another outside police agency to investigate.

Driving the news: Ferguson's office this week maintained it couldn't initiate an investigation, in response to Axios' story about how Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, interim police chief Adrian Diaz and City Attorney Ann Davison aren't pressing for one.

The latest: In turn, Satterberg's spokesperson told Axios: "Typically, the AG's office is not passive — they routinely initiate the request for their investigators and we agree to their request."

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, and no elected official is stepping up to press for an investigation.
  • 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 racial justice protests.

Context: Former Mayor Jenny Durkan has denied that she switched her phone to the setting that automatically deleted her texts; former police chief Carmen Best has said she doesn't know what happened to her texts.

  • Several other city officials are also missing texts for the same period.

The bottom line: The latest back and forth only reinforces how unwilling officials are to investigate the matter.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that the AG's office only asks permission to investigate in cases such as Medicaid fraud.

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