Judge should make privacy call
As new technology makes communication easier, it complicates efforts to monitor the official activities of public officials. It also complicates the efforts of public officials to have the private lives they deserve.
We write in today’s South Sound section about a lawsuit brought by a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy denied full access to private cellphone records of the county prosecutor. Deputy Glenda Nissen requested a log of calls and text messages Prosecutor Mark Lindquist made from his private cellphone, which he also uses for public business.
Nissen alleges Lindquist retaliated against her after an out-of-court settlement in a previous claim and says the phone records would help prove it.
The county turned over some of the phone records, but redacted or withheld others, declaring them private. Nissen’s attorney says the county failed to cite specific exemptions to the state public records law allowing it to withhold information.
Washington courts have ruled that public business, whether conducted on a government computer or phone or on a private one, should be available to the public.
“If the phone is a personal phone, then only the records pertaining to county business are public records,” wrote Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, in response to my question about the matter.
Records can include a record of calls placed or received, text messages and voicemail recordings, he said, adding, “the fact that it was ‘used’ or ‘prepared’ by an agency employee makes it a public record even though it’s on a personal device.”
Many of us use personal cellphones these days to make business calls and send business emails or text messages. We also use them to pay our bills, text our friends and call our family. Carrying a single cellphone is simpler than carrying two.
Some government officials, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have famously conducted business from their cellphones. Much of Palin’s digital correspondence was made public earlier this year after records requests made to the State of Alaska. While mildly interesting, they didn’t reveal wrong-doing.
On the other hand, text messages sent by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on his cellphone provided proof he had been having an affair with his chief of staff, lied about it in court and tried to cover it up. The release of his text messages in 2007 led to Kilpatrick’s resignation and charges of obstruction of justice.
In the local case, Pierce County has released some records to Nissen – those it says related to official business – and withheld others, declaring them private. But only the county knows for sure what’s in the records.
To protect the prosecutor’s privacy and ensure that the public is getting everything it’s entitled to, a neutral third party – in this case, a judge – should look through the entire log and decide which is which.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434