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Prosecutor asks for probe into Seattle mayor's deleted texts

Jenny Durkan wears an off-white blazer and stands in front of a microphone. Behind her are an American flag and the seal of the city of Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses a news conference on Sept. 2, 2020.

SEATTLE (AP) — King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has asked Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall to investigate the deletion of text messages in 2020 from the phones of then-Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and other city leaders.

Satterberg said Thursday in an emailed statement that it wasn’t clear to him that anyone was going to start this investigation without prompting, The Seattle Times reported.

“Just like the public’s right to an open courtroom, people have a right to know what is in public documents – including text messages," he wrote.

Satterberg’s office requested the investigation July 28, spokesperson Casey McNerthney said.

Cole-Tindall spokesperson Cynthia Sampson said the agency is in the early stages of reviewing the matter.

Last year, a whistleblower in Durkan’s office revealed the mayor’s texts from a 10-month period — including the summer of 2020 when police deployed tear gas against Black Lives Matter demonstration crowds and vacated the East Precinct — were missing.

The Seattle Times discovered that other leaders including fire Chief Harold Scoggins and then-police Chief Carmen Best, had failed to retain their texts from about the same period.

In February, a forensic analysis, commissioned in response to lawsuits over the city’s handling of the 2020 protests, indicated that Durkan’s phone was manually set in July 2020 to automatically delete texts after 30 days.

The analysis didn’t determine who changed the text retention setting on Durkan’s phone. Durkan has said she did not delete the texts.

She has said the city’s information technology department worked on her phones in July 2020 to fix problems. The information technology department has said it’s not the department’s practice to change retention settings to delete messages.

The forensic analysis didn’t review why at least seven other officials, including Scoggins, Best and police commanders under Best, failed to retain their texts. The analysis did find data consistent with testimony Best gave in a deposition that she had periodically deleted her texts.

The analysis couldn’t find backups of Durkan’s and Best’s texts from May 2020 and June 2020.

Several state rules and laws govern the retention of public records, including texts.

Guidelines for preserving public records require that texts and other communications by local elected officials about public business be kept for at least two years before being transferred to the state’s archives “for appraisal and selective retention.”

Anyone who willfully destroys a public record that’s supposed to be kept is guilty of a felony under state law. Most elected and public officials in Washington, including mayors, are required to take training that include information about retaining records.

Durkan and Best didn’t respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Following the release of the forensic analysis, the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis called for an outside investigation into the matter.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, who succeeded Durkan in January, said in February he would consult with City Attorney Ann Davison’s office to determine an appropriate course of action. He hasn't shared any next steps.

During last year’s elections, Seattle mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk asked state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to investigate and his office said only local law enforcement could investigate.

“Typically we don’t ask for an investigation to be conducted,” Satterberg said Thursday in his statement. “But in recent weeks and months, I heard from people in the community that this matter was important to them and I considered it my responsibility to make this request to the sheriff before the end of my term.”

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