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Friday, September 22, 2023
Sept. 22, 2023

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Seattle to settle lawsuit by employees who blew whistle on mayor’s missing texts


The city of Seattle has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by employees who, with a whistleblower complaint in 2021, helped reveal that thousands of then-Mayor Jenny Durkan’s text messages had been deleted.

Further scrutiny showed that texts of multiple other top officials were also not retained from early summer 2020, when police deployed tear gas against Black Lives Matter protest crowds and vacated the East Precinct.

The terms of the city’s settlement with Stacy Irwin and Kimberly Ferreiro have not yet been disclosed.

In their lawsuit, Irwin and Ferreiro said they were compelled to resign from their jobs as public-records officers in Durkan’s office rather than continue suffering hostile conditions and retaliation. They alleged they were mistreated for objecting to how the mayor’s office was handling requests by news reporters and others for Durkan’s texts.

Irwin and Ferreiro alleged they were “routinely subjected to scorn, ridicule, abuse and hostility … and the demand to perform illegal acts.”

The plaintiffs and the city filed a settlement notice in King County Superior Court last month, but the parties have yet to finalize the deal and declined Monday to share details.

As of April 3, the city had spent more than $770,000 defending the case, mostly in payments to contracted attorneys from the firm Savitt Bruce & Willey LLP, according to an expense report from the city attorney’s office.

“I’m glad it’s over,” Irwin said Monday.

Though Irwin called her whistleblower experience “the worst year of my life,” due to stress and losing her job, Ferreiro called the settlement a victory.

“The big story for me is that whistleblowers can win,” she said. “This could have very easily been swept under the table,” but wasn’t, “so it’s a big win for whistleblowers. I’m extremely proud of that.”

Marina Udodik, a spokesperson for City Attorney Ann Davison, declined to comment “because the parties are still negotiating” the final terms.

Durkan didn’t immediately return an emailed request for comment Monday.

In early 2021, Irwin, with support from Ferreiro, complained to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission about the mayor’s office mishandling records requests. An investigation by the ethics commission found that the mayor’s legal counsel, Michelle Chen, had violated the state Public Records Act by using narrow interpretations of certain requests to exclude Durkan’s missing texts. Chen had diverged from best practices by not informing requesters that the texts were missing, the investigation also determined.

At the time, an attorney for Chen called the investigation rushed and unfair, arguing it failed to account for the involvement of others.

“At all times, she acted consistent with the advice she received from the city attorney’s office and the mayor’s office,” Chen’s attorney, Darwin Roberts, said in a written statement Monday.

Durkan and Chen had yet to be deposed in the Irwin-Ferreiro lawsuit when the case settled last month.

Under state law and guidelines, texts and other communications about public business by local elected officials must be kept for at least two years. Anyone who willfully destroys a public record that’s supposed to be kept is guilty of a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Last August, then-King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg asked Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall to put together an investigation into the matter. Cole-Tindall’s office has yet to announce any results.

The 2021 investigation by the ethics commission didn’t examine how Durkan’s texts were deleted, and her office initially attributed the loss to an “unknown technology issue.” A city-commissioned forensic report later found that Durkan’s phone was likely changed in July 2020 to delete texts automatically after 30 days and was also set to delete texts stored in the cloud.

A subsequent forensic report, commissioned by business owners and residents suing the city over June 2020’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest, also known as CHOP, found that additional Durkan texts were manually deleted.

Other officials with missing 2020 texts were then-police Chief Carmen Best, fire Chief Harold Scoggins, assistant police chief Eric Greening, police chief strategy officer Chris Fisher, emergency operations official Kenneth Neafcy and public utilities official Idris Beauregard.

Tens of thousands of texts were deleted from Best’s and Fisher’s phones, the most recent forensic report found. Phones used by Scoggins, Beauregard, Greening and Neafcy were reset in October 2020, it found.

Durkan has said she did not delete her texts and that most of her deleted texts were ultimately reproduced from other phones. She has said problems arose with her phone after she dropped it in a tide pool on 2020’s Fourth of July holiday and sought help from the city’s information technology department.

Last May, the city agreed to pay nearly $200,000 and to improve its public records process to settle a lawsuit brought by The Seattle Times. That lawsuit alleged the city had mishandled requests from reporters who asked for copies of messages between city officials, including Durkan and Best.