SEATTLE — Two now-former public records officers who blew the whistle about Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s missing text messages have each filed $5 million claims against the city, saying they faced retaliation and felt compelled to resign.
Records officer Stacy Irwin, with support from colleague Kimberly Ferreiro, reported to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission that the mayor’s office had broken the Public Records Act in responding to requests from journalists and others for Durkan’s communications. The requests focused on decisions Durkan and other city officials made amid racial justice protests and unrest in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood last year.
The claims allege Irwin and Ferreiro were required to “perform illegal acts” and “subjected to scorn, ridicule, abuse and hostility” in retaliation for trying to comply with the law, The Seattle Times reported.
Durkan spokesperson Anthony Derrick said the mayor’s office could not comment on pending legal claims or litigation.
In responding to the requests and to lawsuits filed against the city, the mayor’s office discovered that months of Durkan’s text messages had not been retained as required by law.
Michelle Chen, the mayor’s legal counsel, directed the public records officers not to inform requesters of that fact, and instead the mayor’s office tried to re-create the missing text messages with copies that had been stored on others’ phones — with only partial success, an outside investigation conducted for the commission found.
Chen also engaged in “improper governmental action” by deciding to exclude Durkan’s missing texts from certain requests, the investigation found.
“I have knowingly broken the law following Michelle’s advice and while I tried to push back, ultimately she has proven her power,” Irwin wrote in her claim.
She added: “Michelle is a fear-based leader and occasionally likes to remind us we work at the will of the mayor, which to us was a subtle reminder that they could let us go at any time.”
Chen’s attorney, Darwin Roberts, said Wednesday she denies the allegations.
“It’s nonsense to suggest Ms. Chen ordered Ms. Irwin or Ms. Ferreiro to hide public records,” he said. “Ms. Chen at all times sought to act according to the law, under the legal advice she received from the City Attorney’s Office, regarding how to process the pending PRA requests. Ms. Chen also tried to help recover copies of the Mayor’s text messages that the City’s systems lost, and advocated for improvements to the City’s systems to better preserve records.”
The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission investigation report found that Durkan’s texts from late August 2019 to late June 2020 had not been retained. The investigation didn’t examine how or why the mayor’s texts went missing; it focused on how requests for those records were handled.
Durkan’s office has acknowledged that her phone at some point was set to delete texts older than 30 days. Neither Durkan nor the IT department has taken responsibility for selecting that setting, which violates state law and the city’s records retention policies.
Durkan has said that while Chen’s actions did not comport with the Public Records Act, she had provided other “invaluable work and dedicated service” to the city.
The Seattle Times sued over the lost texts last month, alleging the city violated the law by withholding, destroying, losing or otherwise failing to retain Durkan’s records after they were requested by reporters.