Prosecutor race shifts to low road as Lindquist attacks Robnett and runs afoul of another newspaper

Mark Lindquist, left, and Mary Robnett are candidates for Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney.
Mark Lindquist, left, and Mary Robnett are candidates for Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

Fallout from the bruising campaign for Pierce County prosecutor is spreading, leaving an irradiated political landscape and the promise of more scorched earth.

The surprising results of the Aug. 7 primary saw challenger Mary Robnett defeat incumbent Mark Lindquist by more than 11 points. Local political observers were stunned.

The outcome also drove a wedge between Lindquist and the Tacoma Weekly, a local news outlet that has been friendly to him in the past.

The relationship has changed since the primary results were announced. That night, Lindquist emailed a note to his supporters, attacking Robnett and vowing to take direct aim at her before the Nov. 6 general election.

“Because she once worked in the Prosecutor’s Office, we know her personal, professional, and ethical failings,” the note said, in part. “She lied under oath. She told staff in the prosecutor’s office to destroy public records.”

Robnett saw the note soon after it appeared.

“Sounds kind of desperate,” she said. “I have a plan, I’ve got a strategy. I’m going to stick to my plan, and I’m going to let Mark be Mark.”

Lindquist’s election-night note told supporters to read an “article” in the Tacoma Weekly that purported to reveal Robnett’s misconduct. The note provided a link and urged supporters to share it.

Weekly publisher John Weymer saw the note, too. His reaction was immediate.

“I was pretty upset,” he told The News Tribune in a recent interview. “The note referenced an ‘article’ in the Tacoma Weekly that was not an article. It was a guest opinion that was sent in by a gentleman that is probably a supporter of Mark’s. Mark mentioned his name.”

“Mark gave the perception to those people that received that email that the Tacoma Weekly was supporting him and not supporting Mary, and that those comments about her were true,” Weymer added. “I can’t verify that one way or the other because that’s just that gentleman’s opinion.”

Within a day, Weymer removed the guest opinion from his online news site. A meeting with his editorial board followed. On Aug. 9, the Weekly ran a rare in-house editorial that called out Lindquist.

“The Tacoma Weekly News has not endorsed Lindquist’s bid to remain in office,” the editorial said. “The majority of Pierce County voters in the primary election have voiced their opinion about him as well.”

Weymer said he also called Lindquist and spoke to him personally about the matter, trying to explain the importance of distinguishing between news reported by his staff and opinions submitted by readers.

“I said, ‘Mark, you put my back against the wall and you’re my friend but now I have to answer what you did in my paper,’” Weymer said. “He didn’t grasp why it’s so important for us to get it right and be credible. I believe that Mark was using the guest opinion as an ad, so therefore I’m not going to give him that.

“I can’t afford to give him free advertising. He is manipulating the press at this point, which he has a reputation for doing. As his friend, I’ve tried to advise him, ‘Just don’t do that.’ I had to do what I had to do to protect the reputation of my paper.”

Asked for comment, Lindquist did not address the conversation with Weymer or the allegations he volleyed at Robnett. Instead he repeated his standard campaign message.

“I’m focused on doing my job and making the community safer,” he wrote via email. “Specifically, protecting elders, fighting crime, suing Big Pharma, and improving the criminal justice system with innovative additions such as mental health court.”

Lindquist’s campaign consultant, Alex Hays, declined to address the campaign’s allegations against Robnett, saying he couldn’t assemble supporting evidence quickly enough to meet The News Tribune’s deadline.

Hays did discuss the conflict with the Tacoma Weekly. He did not endorse or agree with Weymer’s remarks regarding Lindquist, but he said the campaign would clearly label the opinion piece in the future.

“John’s views are reasonable, and going forward we’ll refer to the piece as an op-ed,” Hays said.

Historically, Lindquist has used The Weekly as a conduit for public relations efforts. The paper often prints press releases from his office verbatim and has regularly published opinion columns written by Lindquist. Both candidates also have purchased paid ads in the paper since the campaign began.

The guest opinion mentioned in Lindquist’s election-night note was written by Glen Morgan, a Thurston County activist known for filing political complaints against Democrats throughout the state.

Since Jan. 1, 2017, Morgan has filed 361 complaints with the state Public Disclosure Commission — all but one against Democrats, according to PDC staff. Hays said neither he nor Lindquist, who is running as a Democrat, spoke to Morgan about the item before its submission to the Weekly.

Morgan’s opinion piece, now published on his own website, wethegoverned.com, stitches information together from various stories published in The News Tribune while omitting key facts.

For example, Morgan refers to various complaints to the Washington State Bar Association filed against Lindquist and states that all of them have been dismissed. They have not; Lindquist faces a public hearing before the bar association on Dec. 12, five weeks after the Nov. 6 general election — a rare occurrence for an elected prosecutor.

The active bar complaint asserts that Lindquist violated the rules of professional conduct governing prosecutors. The public hearing, recommended by the bar association’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, could lead to the suspension of Lindquist’s license to practice law.

Morgan also states that Robnett faces an investigation by the Washington State Executive Ethics Board for alleged use of state resources for public campaigns.

The complaint exists; Morgan filed it. He contends that Robnett posted campaign-related items on social media from her work address at the state Attorney General’s Office.

The Ethics Board has not ruled yet, but Robnett furnished a detailed response sent to the board that denies the allegation. She backs up her argument with documents and screengrabs showing that her campaign staff posted the social media items in question.

Morgan’s opinion column echoes Lindquist’s accusation regarding purported destruction of public records. The allegation stems from incidents related to the active bar complaint, which involves Lindquist’s dubious appearance on the “Nancy Grace” legal talk show in the midst of an active murder trial.

During breaks in court action, deputy prosecutor Greg Greer chatted with Robnett over email. The two were old friends who had worked at the prosecutor’s office for years, though Robnett had left to work for the state in 2012.

During the conversation, Greer, unhappy with Lindquist’s actions, vented about his boss. Robnett, who was not running for office at the time, suggested that deputy prosecutors needed to stand up to Lindquist.

An excerpt:

Robnett: People who are prosecutors/cops need to tell truth. Period. Even if it is inconvenient. Even if he makes things uncomfortable. DPA’s who don’t tell the truth have no place in a prosecutor’s office.

Greer: I agree. He (Lindquist) doesn’t make things uncomfortable, though. He spins things and gets everyone he can to join in his version of events and then he and Dawn (Chief of Staff Dawn Farina) calculate to destroy the person.

At another point, Greer worried that Lindquist might get wind of the conversation.

Greer: If Mark ever looks at my e-mails, I’m gone.

Robnett: Delete your e-mail.

The statement is the basis for the accusation from Lindquist that Robnett “told staff in the prosecutor’s office to destroy public records.” The records were not destroyed; The News Tribune obtained them in 2016 via public disclosure.

Asked about her conversation with Greer, Robnett said she regrets having the discussion on a public email account — but she said she was responding to Greer’s worries about his boss and that the email was a transitory communication that didn’t necessarily require legal retention.

“I regret using my government computer to chit-chat,” she said. “I don’t regret the advice. There’s a documented history of retaliation from Mark and others in that office, and Greer was concerned about that. If the Lindquist campaign wants to talk about public records as a campaign issue, I’ll talk about that all day long, given that there’s a Thurston County Superior Court finding that Lindquist personally violated the Public Records Act.”

Robnett was referring to a long-running lawsuit involving Lindquist’s text messages. Morgan touches the topic obliquely in his opinion column, though he omits significant details such as the final outcome: a ruling that Lindquist violated the state Public Records Act and a bill to taxpayers that now exceeds $1 million.

The only element of the case that Morgan mentions is the allegation that Robnett lied under oath about her knowledge of Lindquist’s campaigning in 2011. He provides limited context.

The text-message case, a complicated matter, is actually two cases. The first, known as Nissen I, is named for the plaintiff, retired sheriff’s deputy Glenda Nissen. She sued Pierce County in 2011 for access to the messages, believing they would reflect a continuing effort by Lindquist to retaliate against her for criticizing him politically.

In 2010, Nissen had been accused of sending an anonymous death threat to Robnett. Nissen denied it, no forensic evidence was uncovered to connect her with the letter, and the Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against her, citing insufficient evidence.

Public records show Lindquist attempted to steer the death-threat inquiry and discouraged investigators from looking at any suspects other than Nissen. The text-message lawsuit is an outgrowth of that matter, though it has other facets.

In the course of the lawsuit, Robnett came forward and disclosed a key message that Lindquist had tried to withhold. Sent to Robnett at 11:51 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2011, the message said, “Tell allies to comment on TNT story.”

The story, published the same day, was about Nissen. Other staffers in the prosecutor’s office posted anonymous comments. Robnett did not. Public records show Lindquist worked for hours before and after publication to influence the story’s wording and framing.

In court filings filed five years later, Lindquist insisted the message to Robnett wasn’t a public record but political management, part of an active campaign for office. The message was sent nine months after Lindquist won his first election as prosecutor.

He argued that the campaign was ongoing, contending that Robnett was still involved with it because she and her husband attended one of his fundraisers in 2011, and Robnett’s husband wrote a check. The $50 donation is reflected in campaign finance reports of the time.

In a separate declaration filed with the court, Robnett said she wasn’t involved in Lindquist’s campaign in August 2011 and that she read the text message as a work-related directive from her boss about office business, not a political message.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor, weighing the competing declarations, found that the text message was a public record and ruled against Lindquist. He did not rule that Robnett lied under oath.

In the second chapter of the case, which revolved around a larger set of text messages written in the same time frame, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christopher Lanese examined the same sets of records. He did not rule that Robnett lied under oath.

Asked about the allegation, Robnett reiterated the statement she made.

“I wasn’t involved in any campaign in August 2011,” she said.

In one sense, circumstances related to the text-message case prompted Robnett to leave the prosecutor’s office in 2012. She campaigned for him originally in 2009 and 2010 but grew disenchanted.

Public records from a 2015 whistleblower investigation of Lindquist’s office include an interview with Robnett, who explained that she left the office because Lindquist treated her as his messenger and little else — a change from the autonomy she had experienced under Lindquist’s predecessors, Gerry Horne and John Ladenburg, who were less concerned with political image-crafting.

Robnett also said Lindquist kept pressing her to file a lawsuit against Nissen. Robnett declined, and Lindquist persisted. Unwilling to work for him any longer, she left, according to the investigator’s notes.

“Left the office because she didn’t want to work for Lindquist; gave up a little bit of herself every day,” the notes state. “Did a lot of things she didn’t want to do at a personal price; tried to be a supportive manager for him, once she decided to take the position; so did a lot of things and delivered messages that she didn’t agree with.”

Records of the investigation also noted that Lindquist called Robnett on the day her interview was scheduled.

“Robnett said that Lindquist called her on the day that I interviewed her, after she had not heard from him for a few years. He started by saying that she had always been one of the most important people in his life; he valued her opinion; and, if she asked him for a favor, he would do it for her.

“He then told Robnett that he loved her when she left the office and still does. Lastly, he said, ‘I need a favor from you; I need your counsel and would like to meet you.’ Robnett was heading into a three-week trial and told Lindquist she was not inclined to meet with him.

“Lindquist generally confirmed the gist of the conversation described by Robnett.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT
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