Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist surprised some people last week by suddenly ending his most recent bad gamble to keep work-related text messages out of public view.
His disclosure of the records, prompted by a judge’s order and the County Council’s reluctance to underwrite court appeals, might begin to extricate taxpayers from a six-year legal mess that’s cost more than $600,000.
What’s not surprising is that Lindquist used his familiar brand of salesmanship, swagger and spin when the text messages were posted on the prosecutor’s Facebook page.
True to form, Lindquist acted on his own terms, in his own time, at a moment of political expediency, while refusing to acknowledge the weakness of his case or budge from the self-righteousness of his cause.
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Perhaps he was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s 1969 classic song (or the 1978 punk-rock remake by Sid Vicious, referenced in one of Lindquist’s crime novels).
He did it his way.
The nine text messages from Lindquist’s personal cellphone were deemed public records last month by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese. The judge identified them from a batch of 153 texts under court review to see if Lindquist was complying with public records law. They’re also fodder in an ongoing legal dispute, in which the prosecutor is accused of retaliating against former Sheriff’s Deputy Glenda Nissen.
Lindquist has long claimed he’s careful not use his cellphone for public business. County attorneys went even further and argued that any records created on a privately owned device are exempt from public disclosure. The state Supreme Court disagreed in a resounding 2015 ruling, then sent the case back to trial judges to decide whether the content of individual messages is public or private.
A previous court review of another batch of Lindquist texts found a single message to be a public record. This time, Lanese determined several more qualified as public records — a decision the prosecutor pooh-poohed even as he released their contents on Facebook, two weeks after Lanese’s ruling.
“Out of hundreds of personal records and personal messages the Plaintiff sought, those nine trivial messages are the only ones somehow found to be public records,” Lindquist’s office said in a Facebook statement. “As is clear from the messages, no government business was conducted by these texts.”
If they were as trivial as he says, why did he spend nearly two-thirds of a million dollars — your dollars — fighting their release?
It’s correct that the texts from 2011 contain no earth-shaking revelations. We already knew Lindquist took a close interest in website comments posted to News Tribune stories about the Nissen case. And it’s hardly shocking that his staff engaged in name-calling and other petty behavior prevalent in many workplaces.
But make no mistake: The nine texts do relate to how Lindquist and other county officials carry out their public duties. These are not grocery lists from his wife or notes from his literary agent. They shed light on a carefully controlled, at times paranoid atmosphere in the prosecutor’s office.
Lindquist, like state legislators, tries to justify his fight against open records by citing the need to protect public-employee safety and privacy. But as these text messages suggest, the greatest threat that some employees need protection from is their own embarrassing gossip.
So why did Lindquist release the text messages the way he did, using an 8 p.m. social media post to bypass the established court process? For one thing, it gave him a jump on reporters, attorneys and others closely watching his legal struggles, and it allowed him to spin the narrative with his customary public safety bromides.
For another thing, it gave him a big headline the same day a formidable challenger announced she would run in the 2018 prosecutor’s election. Lindquist will do all he can to deflect attention from Mary Robnett, a former Pierce County deputy prosecutor and current state assistant attorney general.
As election season heats up, Lindquist will face questions about ongoing Nissen-related litigation in state and federal courts. The county is on the hook for any new penalties the court assesses for withholding these text messages for five years, plus attorney fees. That’s on top of previous legal bills related to various complaints against Lindquist and his subordinates totaling more than $2 million.
Of course, the prosecutor will also grab the spotlight for important work his office is doing, such as locking up bad people and filing suit against pharmaceutical companies.
The lyrics from Sinatra’s song seem fitting: “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew, when I bit off more than I could chew.”
Even so, we expect Lindquist will keep doing things his way while others pay the price.