For six years, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist fought disclosure of text messages on his private phone, contending they weren’t related to public business.
On Wednesday night, Lindquist’s office abruptly posted nine messages on his office’s Facebook page, two weeks after Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christopher Lanese ruled the messages qualified as public records, seemingly ending a six-year legal debate that cost county taxpayers $623,441.
The surprising move by Lindquist comes in advance of a March 2 hearing when Lanese is expected to order disclosure of the messages and set a schedule for a discussion of possible legal penalties. The text-message suit was brought by former Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Glenda Nissen, who contends that Lindquist sought to sabotage her career after she opposed him politically.
In his Wednesday Facebook post, Lindquist called the nine messages “trivial” and “insignificant,” noting that they were “somehow found to be public records.” He added that “no government business was conducted by any of the messages.”
Some of the names in the messages posted by Lindquist are redacted in the Facebook post. Whether they will be disclosed in the course of legal proceedings is unclear.
One message, from deputy prosecutor Bryce Nelson, refers to “a rumor going round that this d-bag defense attorney” was angling for a job with the prosecutor’s office. The defense attorney’s name is redacted in Lindquist’s post.
Nelson’s message adds that a co-worker referred to the unnamed defense attorney as “an evil Harry Potter” who would try to sabotage the prosecutor’s office from the inside.
Lindquist did not respond to the message from Nelson.
Another message from Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer tells Lindquist to check his work email and mentions a “nasty letter” received from someone whose name is redacted.
Other messages refer to an anonymous online comment posted by deputy prosecutor Mike Sommerfeld on a 2011 News Tribune story. The story described an ongoing dispute between the prosecutor’s office and Nissen. Sommerfeld’s anonymous comment called it “more than frivolous.” He used the handle “porfirypetrovich,” borrowed from a character in a Dostoevsky novel.
Nissen’s lawsuit contends that the prosecutor’s office used coordinated efforts to disparage her reputation. The sequence of three messages between Sommerfeld and Lindquist shed further light on the incident.
The sequence Lindquist posted Wednesday begins with a message from Sommerfeld: “It is posted now,” he wrote, referring to the story comment.
“Doesn’t come up,” Lindquist replied. “What’s the name?”
“It’s there now, 3rd from top,” Sommerfeld replied.
At the time, Sommerfeld was the legal advisor to Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, Nissen’s boss. When news of Sommerfeld’s actions surfaced in 2016, Pastor raised concerns about it. Sommerfeld was reassigned to other duties within the prosecutor’s office.
Lindquist’s description of the messages on Facebook closes with the repeated claim that, “no government business was conducted by these texts.”
At the outset of the text message case in 2012, Lindquist and outside attorneys hired by Pierce County argued that all records on his private phone were protected by privacy interests, and thus immune from disclosure. Multiple rulings from the state Supreme Court and lower courts said the opposite, finding that messages on private can be public if they pertain to public business. Related records show that other county prosecutors questioned the wisdom of pursuing the text-message case, including King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who called it “a dead-bang loser.”
In his latest Facebook statement, Lindquist continues to argue that the county was victorious in multiple court rulings on the case. Referring to the latest ruling ordering that his messages are public records, he offered an explanation for his decision to post the records.
“The County has a right to appeal, but this grossly overreaching lawsuit has already cost the County enough money and the County has already won on the principles at stake, while still disagreeing on a few specific messages. Lawyers sometimes disagree,” the statement says. “The Prosecutor decided to make the messages public to prove what the county and the Prosecutor have always said: this case was about security and privacy, about protecting those who protect the community.”
The decision by Lindquist to release the messages in advance of the March 2 hearing scrambles the pending legal proceedings, which are likely to include a discussion of future penalties for withholding the messages, as well as attorney fees associated with the fight.
It also suggests that Pierce County Council members, who asserted their authority over the text message case in late 2015, had no interest in appealing the judge’s ruling. The council chose not to appeal a similar ruling related to the case in 2016. That ruling led to penalties for nondisclosure and an award of $128,000.
Nissen’s attorney Joan Mell, said Wednesday night that Lindquist’s surprising decision to post the messages before the court hearing reflected bad faith, and proved her client was right to seek disclosure.
“Never-ending spin that wastes everyone’s time,” Mell said. “His press statement is pure fiction that is not worth reading. These nine texts are the very public records Glenda Nissen was after from day one. Because Glenda Nissen had the courage to fight for her reputation the public records hidden on Mark Lindquist’s private phone are now public. She is the real hero.”