The city of Seattle will pay $17,000 to settle a lawsuit by The Seattle Times that alleged the city violated the state Public Records Act by failing to turn over in a timely manner text messages related to former Mayor Ed Murray.
In reaching the settlement, finalized Friday, the city did not admit to violating the law, but agreed to the payment to cover the newspaper’s legal costs.
The city also agreed to conduct “refresher” training for employees on their responsibility to retain public records, use city-owned devices for city business, and avoid use of smartphone apps that automatically delete communications.
“We’re glad to have resolved the litigation on this matter,” said Dan Nolte, a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes.
For its part, the newspaper agreed to dismiss the lawsuit and waive any further legal claims with regard to the records. It also agreed not to characterize the settlement as “a payment of penalties and/or fines.”
Said Seattle Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores, “We’re glad to have this case resolved, and we hope the settlement will cause public officials to take more care with records contained on their private devices.”
The Public Records Act states “the people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them” and requires state and local governments to provide “fullest assistance” and “the most timely possible action” on records requests. Agencies can face fines and legal costs for illegally withholding or delaying responsive records.
The Seattle Times sued the city in King County Superior Court in September 2018 over records reporters had sought related to Murray, who had resigned a year earlier over allegations he’d sexually abused teens decades before entering politics. Murray has denied all the accusations.
The lawsuit stemmed from a July 26, 2017, records request by a Times reporter to the mayor’s office for text messages sent by Murray to city employees over a 15-day period, whether on city-owned or personal phones, as well as all responses to those messages.
At the time, Murray was fending off calls for his resignation by some City Council members following the Times’ revelation that an Oregon child-welfare investigator had in 1984 found sexual-abuse allegations by Murray’s ex-foster son to be credible, leading state officials to assert that “under no circumstances” should Murray be certified as a foster parent again.
The city turned over a set of relatively innocuous messages from Murray’s phone and said it was closing the records request that September. Several months later, the Times learned of other messages covered by the request that had not been disclosed. They included texts Murray had sent to Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González at a time when she was poised to publicly suggest the mayor resign.
Those records, the newspaper’s lawsuit alleged, “were newsworthy and would have been of critical public interest had they been disclosed in a timely manner and as required by [the Public Records Act].”
In a July 16, 2017, text, which the city had failed to disclose, Murray pleaded with González not to call for his resignation, citing his record as “the first gay man to be elected to a major executive office in America.” He also attacked one of his accusers for previously telling his story to a conservative group, and insisted “I am not a child sex abuser.”
The next morning, Murray texted González after news broke of her calls for him to consider leaving office. “You promised if you changed your mind you would contact me,” he wrote.
Some of the text messages sought by the newspaper were later disclosed by González and by the city in response to other public records requests, as detailed in a January 2018 story about Murray’s final months in office. A few previously undisclosed texts were turned over Friday.
The settlement also releases the city from claims related to two other records requests filed by Times reporters in 2018 seeking documents about the city’s repeal of its controversial “head tax.” A city data expert said in a sworn declaration he was unable to retrieve some deleted text messages from the cellular phone of Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan.
In the settlement, the city and the newspaper attested that “all existing requested records” sought by the Times have been provided “to the best of the City’s knowledge.”
Staff reporter Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.