Mayor Jenny Durkan's missing text messages scandal could serve as the fulfillment of a prophesy implied by that cursed Thelma and Louise comparison she made last summer. At the height of 2020's protests, Durkan joked that she and ex-Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best toyed with the idea of "having a Thelma and Louise moment" and resigning as a team, but they ultimately decided otherwise. Best resigned two months later.
A month short of a year since she made those comments, Durkan is now feeling the heat over months of missing text messages from her phone, some from around the time her Thelma and Louise joke was in vogue. The majority of candidates running for mayor called for an investigation into Durkan's and other city officials' missing text messages. (I guess we're calling it textgate?). Some even called for her resignation.
Did Durkan just accidentally drive her mayorship off a cliff?
Last week, the Seattle Times revealed that a scourge of unknown software bugs and password snafus left the devices belonging to Durkan, Best, Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins, four members of SPD command staff, and two other city officials with a convenient gap in digital memory.
Durkan's missing texts range from August 2019 to June 25, 2020, dates that include the start of last summer's protests and CHOP. According to the Times, seven other officials' texts weren't retained either. It's unclear which dates those other missing texts cover.
When I asked for more clarification from Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's office, he said he couldn't speak with me about the texts since I am a plaintiff in an active lawsuit against the city for teargassing the fuck out of protesters and potentially chilling free speech. The city was supposed to supply Durkan's texts as evidence in that case.
The situation is messy. Did everyone's phone glitch in slightly different ways, but around the same time period? The Times reported this week that Durkan lost her texts because she had set her iPhone to automatically delete messages after 30 days. That choice could run afoul of state laws requiring public officials to keep their communications about public matters for at least two years. Previously, Durkan's office attributed her lost messages to an unknown software issue. Scoggins, the report reads, had "password" issues that led to his texts disappearing.
Others speculate that Seattle's top officials could have engaged in a felony conspiracy to erase their texts.
So far, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has directed the only investigation into this public records dust-up. That investigation only looked into how the mayor's office handled the records request, and investigators found that Durkan's legal counsel violated "best practices" but didn't break the law.
The results of that investigation didn't satisfy the curiosities of most Seattle mayoral candidates, who want to find out more information regarding the circumstances of these deleted texts.
Do we need to fix the public records process?
In a statement, Council President Lorena Gonzalez, who is running for Mayor, reemphasized a plan she announced earlier this week. Gonzalez is working with City Attorney Pete Holmes to create an independent public disclosure entity meant just for requests related to the mayor's office. Right now, the city clerk's office oversees city records. The mayor oversees the clerk. Gonzalez wants "to quickly move the public disclosure process out of the hands of mayors and their politically motivated staff."
Former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell disagreed with this idea. She believes that the "debate is not that we need more ethical people, but we need to compel behavior" so elected officials choose to act ethically.
Farrell called me twice this week to talk about the missing texts. As a public official, Farrell said, she learned "from day one" that her "communications fundamentally belong to the public because the public deserves to know how elected officials are making decisions."
"It is very hard for me to believe that there was some kind of accidental behavior here," Farrell continued.
Farrell thinks the public officials embroiled in this scandal made a "cost-benefit analysis" between failing to comply and maybe facing "pretty minimal fines" and "taking the risk of outing whatever it is that’s pushed aside."
Public officials make these unethical judgment calls far too often, she said, comparing the situation to corporate malfeasance, where attorneys will advise clients to "take a slap on the wrist" instead of "changing practices."
Farrell advocated for higher penalties to deter public officials from making that cost-benefit analysis and violating public disclosure laws, but that would take a legislative change, since penalties are built into the Public Records Act.
Farrell also called for Attorney General Bob Ferguson to launch an investigation into the incident. In order for an investigation to happen, however, a law enforcement entity would need to refer the matter to county prosecutors, who would then refer the matter to Ferguson's office if they needed to. The AG's office would only prosecute in special cases.
Candidate and Chief Seattle Club executive director Colleen Echohawk wrote a letter on Wednesday to Ferguson and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg asking them to investigate.
Gonzalez also supports an investigation. So does Durkan's deputy mayor, Casey Sixkiller, who said, "Any suspected violation of the rules related to records retention is a serious matter and should be investigated thoroughly by a third party."
Should Durkan resign?
Neither Farrell nor Echohawk said Durkan should resign. Gonzalez said she couldn't take a position on Durkan's resignation since, if Durkan did resign before her term was up, Gonzalez would become interim mayor.
Gonzalez added that she "wouldn’t hesitate to call on the mayor to resign when the circumstances warrant it." She pointed to the fact that she was the first elected official to call on then-mayor Ed Murray to resign in 2017 "following the release of serious, credible child sexual abuse allegations."
Farrell, who ran for mayor in 2017, didn't immediately call for Murray's resignation because she wanted to "reject the politics of personal destruction."
When I talked to Farrell earlier this week about whether Durkan should resign she said, "I’m not going to make that kneejerk call." Today on the phone, she changed her tune slightly.
"After having really looked at this, again I’ve really landed on the need for an investigation," Farrell said. She added that while the investigation takes place, she wants Durkan to recuse herself from overseeing SPD, since the content of the missing texts had to do with public safety concerns.
While Farrell is disappointed in Durkan's leadership, she said that Durkan wouldn't be held accountable if she resigned.
"Chief Best is kind of the perfect example where if someone resigns it takes them out of the consequence feedback loop," Farrell said. When Best resigned last August, she wasn't on the hook for how she ran SPD and fell forward into a private security gig and a King 5 correspondent position, Farrell pointed out.
On the other hand, mayoral candidate and architect Andrew Grant Houston wants Durkan to resign. He said he took public records training when he started working as a legislative aide for Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. If he knows public record law, so should Durkan.
"It is very clear that Durkan is incapable of leading and following the law despite being a career prosecutor and politician," Houston said in a statement.
Durkan is not only a high-ranking public official. She's also an accomplished attorney with experience working in digital security. When she served as U.S. attorney, she "helped craft the U.S. Department of Justice’s cyber strategy," the Seattle Times wrote.
Former Council President Bruce Harrell said in a statement that Durkan "should consider resigning." He also called for an investigation.
"These lapses in transparency disproportionately impede justice sought by those impacted by the events of last summer," Harrell said.
Pretty strong stance coming from a guy who didn't call for Mayor Ed Murray to resign after rape allegations emerged, though I suppose textgate didn't happen "33 years ago or maybe didn’t happen. We just don’t know."
SEED Director Lance Randall did not indicate whether he believed Durkan should resign or not. "This matter is becoming a distraction where some candidates are trying use Mayor Durkan to make headlines," Randall said in a statement. "Rather than obsess about missing text messages from our outgoing Mayor, my focus is on becoming Mayor this year to immediately address the issues our city has been facing for far too long."
Randall is spending his time "presenting his platform to the voters" instead of "being infatuated with this distraction." Okay, sorry I asked Lance.
Regardless of what happens, I can't wait to see how this plays out.