Seattle mayor’s office scrambling to retrieve months of deleted text messages

SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office is actively working to retrieve several months of missing and deleted text messages, which are considered potential evidence in a federal lawsuit against the city of Seattle, according to the mayor’s office.

The suit accuses the mayor and the city of abandoning the CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) zone last summer from law enforcement, essentially making a portion of Capitol Hill off-limits for first responders to enter the area and try and save the life of 19-year-old Lorenzo Anderson — after he had been shot there on a night in late June.

Anderson’s mother Donnitta Sinclair is behind the lawsuit, which calls for accountability from several city officials, including the mayor.

“You left the CHOP,” Sinclair said. “You left your precinct. You didn’t come in when you were supposed to. Nobody had a plan. Everybody knew about the CHOP being present. The outcome is death. What are you going do about it?”

The lawsuit demands the mayor’s text messages to find out if it was her idea to take police out of the East Precinct, but attorney Mark Lindquist — who represents Sinclair — said he was told Durkan’s texts from Aug. 28, 2019, to June 25, 2020, were “automatically deleted” because of a setting in her iPhone that removed text messages after 30 days.

“It’s very irresponsible for any high-elected official to not understand that records have to be retained,” said Toby Nixon, an expert on our state’s open records laws. Nixon, who is also a city councilmember in Kirkland, said any text messages made by the mayor regarding official government business are all official public record. As a lawmaker, Nixon crafted a law requiring every elected official in our state to be trained on retaining all communications.

“I assume that the Seattle mayor received such training, and so she really has no excuse to not know that you can’t automatically delete records after 30 days,” he said.

The mayor’s office sent KIRO 7 News this statement, which read, in part, “At all times, the Mayor believed and assumed all her text messages, calendar, and emails were backed up and available to anyone and would be quickly and fully produced. The Mayor has requested that all those documents be made available to the public as quickly as possible.”

Lindquist sent a statement to KIRO 7 News: “The text messages are critically important evidence in our lawsuit against the city and I’m confident a Federal Judge will order the City to produce those messages.”

Nixon said this situation is a real teaching moment for every elected official that even communications on an elected official’s personal phones and devices can be considered public record and must be preserved.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to turn those over because that’s a private device, or because that’s my private email account, or my private Facebook account,’” he said. “You still have to turn them over.”

Nixon said it’s possible for criminal prosecution in a case like this, but it will require proof that a specific person “willfully and intentionally” destroyed public records by setting the iPhone to automatically delete messages.