County Fined Almost $349,000 for Prosecutor’s Public Records Law Violation

This month Pierce County learned that 9 text messages will cost the county and its taxpayers $349,000. A Thurston County court ruled that text messages which discussed work-related matters and were sent from a public employee’s personal cell phone were public records under Washington’s Public Records Act (PCA). Lindquist withheld the requested text messages in violation of the PCA.

This lawsuit, which has spanned almost seven years, began when Lindquist withheld text messages requested by Glenda Nissen, a sheriff’s deputy. Nissen initially requested the text messages to prove her claim that Lindquist retaliated against her for opposing him politically. When Lindquist withheld these messages, Nissen sued for access to them under Washington’s PCA. Some of the messages referred to a local defense attorney who sought a job at the prosecutor’s office as an “evil Harry Potter” and a “d-bag,” while others related to comments anonymously posted by Lindquist’s subordinates posted on a 2011 News Tribune story about Nissen. In mid-February, Lindquist mockingly released redacted versions of the messages on his official Facebook page, asserting that they were not related to government business and calling them “trivial” and “insignificant.”

The court battle finally came to a close Monday, March 12th when Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese held that “Mark Lindquist did not comply with the Public Records Act” when he withheld nine text messages requested by Nissen.

This ruling ultimately resulted in the following penalties imposed against the county: a $165,961 fine for nondisclosure; $178,000 in attorney’s fees to Nissen; and approximately an additional $4,000 in minor costs. Looking at the penalties associated with this ruling combined with all previous costs associated with this case, Pierce County has spent more than $1 million defending this text message case.

As a result, Lindquist instituted a new policy in his office where, as James Lynch, Lindquist’s spokesman, states:
“Office employees are required to forward to the civil division any text messages or emails on their personal phone or computer that directly relate to the conduct of government. These documents are retained as public records. Prosecutor Lindquist believes constitutional privacy rights are compatible with transparency and open government.”

This decision falls on the heels of Governor Inslee’s veto of the Washington Legislature’s public records bill, which sought to exempt Washington lawmakers from state PCA obligations. While it remains to be seen whether this mindset about government transparency is really changing in Washington, one thing is clear: government entities need to have mechanisms in place to retain their text messages or risk being subject to significant fines.

For information please visit our Government solutions page to learn more about how to retain and index your government office’s text messages. We offer weekly watch-it-work overviews to see the Archiving Platform in action and we publish resources such as helpful guides and webinars to help you set up a text message archiving strategy that’s right for your organization.

 

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