Feb 15, 2022 - News

D.C. mayor’s WhatsApp dodge: App sparks records concerns

Illustration of a hand holding a smart phone with a WhatsApp logo on the screen, in front of the John A Wilson Building.
Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration uses the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp widely across the city government, nine current and former staffers or those within the mayor’s circle tell Axios.

Why it matters: WhatsApp can make it easier to shield official communications from Freedom of Information Act requests, and it flies in the face of Bowser’s first mayoral campaign pledge to boost transparency in government.

  • Such messages can be more easily kept secret or destroyed. The app has a feature that can be turned on to delete conversations within a period of time.
  • The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple queries on whether the administration forbids the use of the auto-delete feature and how it ensures communications are archived.
  • “We communicate using a variety of methods to accomplish our work in an expeditious manner,” the mayor’s office said in a one-sentence statement to Axios.

The big picture: Politicians nationwide have landed in hot water over the use of similar platforms. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has used Wickr, an app that destroyed messages within 24 hours, the Washington Post reported in December.

  • And, the District’s commitment to transparency is already under fire after a public defender earlier this month sued the city alleging the Metropolitan Police Department maintains a “watchlist” of reporters and critics whose public records requests are denied or slow-walked. The police chief has denied there is currently a watchlist.

Government ethics advocates discourage the use of such apps unless safeguards are in place to retain communications for FOIA requests.

  • The D.C. Open Government Coalition has called on the Bowser administration to end the use of WhatsApp.
  • “Use of a messaging app that does not provide for collection, archiving, search, or generally, availability to the public of that information is a clear violation of law and circumvention of open government principles,” coalition president and attorney Tom Sussman told Axios.

Zoom in: WhatsApp is used in many levels of the District’s government, according to interviews with two current and five former Bowser administration staffers. They requested anonymity to speak freely.

  • WhatsApp is seen as the top way to get in touch with the mayor and her circle of aides, two sources said.
  • Three sources recall being told to download the app on their government phones. Its use ranges from mundane discussions over logistics and social media updates to reaction to news, crime, and events.
  • Four sources were perplexed over why government business is conducted on an app better known for personal messaging than as a workplace communication platform.

What they’re saying: A former D.C. official said they were advised to download the app on their government iPhone in order to reach lower-level colleagues, particularly community relations employees who act as the eyes and ears of the mayor on the ground — but the ex-official declined because it “felt wrong.”

  • One political donor close to the mayor said conversations on WhatsApp initiated by top mayoral aides can range from political strategy to talk of city projects.
  • A current city employee said WhatsApp can make communicating more difficult if previous messages are not backed up and become lost. “It doesn’t make any sense,” the employee said about the app’s use.

The other side: Others say the app may be better suited to demonstrate urgency. “For me, I was using it to send, ‘I really need to meet with you,’” said a former high-level official, adding that most employees in the mayor’s office and Cabinet had WhatsApp downloaded on their government-issued phones.

Flashback: In the early days of Bowser’s mayoralty in 2015, text message chains were common between staffers.

  • Those sorts of communications ultimately moved to WhatsApp a few years later, according to a former staffer who joined the administration at its onset.
Excerpt from a court filing
Part of D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams' Jan. 24 order related to the Washington Post's public records request for Mayor Muriel Bowser's communications related to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

What were watching: Messages the mayor may have had on WhatsApp in the days before and after the Capitol insurrection are at the center of a legal fight.

  • The Washington Post sued the city government in D.C. Superior Court last June for access to Bowser’s emails and WhatsApp communications, which could give a new window into the city’s response to the Capitol riot.

The District’s attorneys have said in filings that no relevant WhatsApp messages were found.

  • But Judge Yvonne Williams wrote in an order last month that the District’s search for the records and its explanation were "inadequate to meet its burden under FOIA."
  • Discovery proceedings could further dig into how the mayor’s WhatsApp records were searched and whether any exist.
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