Crime

The case of Lindquist’s $300,000 text message: Is it public?

According to Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, the public has no right to see a text message he sent to a co-worker four years ago suggesting “a political strategy to deal with a news story” about his office.

Call it the $300,000 text message. Lindquist contends it’s not a public record, but it’s the heart of a four-year-old public disclosure lawsuit that pits sheriff’s deputy Glenda Nissen against the prosecutor. Nissen believes the message will show Lindquist retaliated against her in the course of a long-running dispute.

Taxpayers have shelled out $315,945 in legal fees to defend Lindquist’s position so far. In recent weeks, the legal fight over the message and five more from Lindquist’s personal phone has provoked the local equivalent of a constitutional crisis. Thursday, facing mounting legal pressure, Lindquist released a sworn affidavit in response to a directive from the state Supreme Court.

Lindquist’s affidavit partially describes, for the first time, the general nature of messages he sent Aug. 2, 2011. He doesn’t provide the actual content of the messages, and he doesn’t identify the recipients, but other records in the lawsuit make their identities plain. He wrote texts to then-Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar, sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, and Mary Robnett, then the chief criminal deputy at the prosecutor’s office.

“I do not believe any of these text messages were within the scope of my employment or have a nexus to the decision making process of the agency and are therefore not public records,” Lindquist’s affidavit states.

Robnett received the final message, shortly before midnight on a Tuesday.

The sixth text, at 11:51 pm, was from me to this person, and suggested a possible political strategy to deal with a news story.

Affidavit of Mark Lindquist

“The sixth text, at 11:51 pm, was from me to this person,” Lindquist states, “and suggested a possible political strategy to deal with a news story.”

The news story appeared in The News Tribune. It referred to Nissen. It described the settlement of a lawsuit she had filed against Lindquist’s office, alleging retaliation by Lindquist and his staffers in response to complaints about how prosecutors were treating her at work.

Lindquist had negotiated with editors and county staffers about the wording of the story throughout the day, according to court records and internal records of The News Tribune.

Robnett left the prosecutor’s office in 2012, following a dispute with Lindquist. She told The News Tribune Saturday that she doesn’t remember what the key text message said. She said she tried to recover it from her old phone without success. She’s also asked Lindquist to provide the message to her.

“I don’t mind releasing those messages,” Robnett said. “I’ve contacted the county executive and offered to give a release. I’ve contacted Mark Lindquist and asked him to resend the message so I can see the content. I haven’t heard from him.”

I don’t mind releasing those messages. I’ve contacted the county executive and offered to give a release. I’ve contacted Mark Lindquist and asked him to resend the message so I can see the content. I haven’t heard from him.

Mary Robnett, former prosecutor

Lindquist’s affidavit contends that because the message to Robnett was political in nature and composed on his personal phone, it’s none of the public’s business.

“I used my personal phone for what I believed to be conversations and messages related to personal or political matters,” the affidavit states. “I avoid using my work phone for personal matters. Critically, I do not and cannot use my work phone for political matters and must use my personal phone for all political communications.”

At the time the text message was sent, Lindquist was not facing an active campaign. His affidavit says he maintains a campaign between elections.

He had taken office eight months earlier, after winning an election the previous fall. Nissen, the subject of the news story, was not a candidate for office and never had been. Her involvement in the news story related to the lawsuit.

Robnett, aware of Lindquist’s characterization of his message as political, said, “I don’t think there was a political campaign going on at that time. I think the election was over.”

Robnett, aware of Lindquist’s characterization of his message as political, said, “I don’t think there was a political campaign going on at that time. I think the election was over.”

In 2010, Nissen had been accused of mailing an anonymous death threat to Robnett. She has always denied it. Sheriff’s detectives investigated the possibility at the time, but found no forensic evidence linking Nissen to the letter. An outside prosecutor’s office declined to file charges against Nissen, citing lack of evidence.

Other records tied to the investigation show that Lindquist and his staffers steered the investigation and discouraged detectives and Sheriff Paul Pastor from investigating anyone but Nissen as a possible suspect.

Lindquist’s affidavit is part of a larger action set for arguments in Thurston County Superior Court on Friday. County Executive Pat McCarthy has asked a judge to appoint an independent attorney to represent taxpayers in the public-records lawsuit. She contends Lindquist is too personally conflicted to make fair legal decisions in the case. Lindquist and his staffers disagree.

Asked for a statement regarding his affidavit, Lindquist referred questions to his attorney, Stewart Estes, who said the affidavit satisfies the Supreme Court’s directive. Estes added that he expects the issue will be resolved at next Friday’s hearing in Thurston County.

Joan Mell, the attorney representing Nissen in the case, said Lindquist’s affidavit doesn’t pass the legal smell test. She and Nissen believe the “political strategy” message Lindquist continues to withhold will provide proof of retaliation.

“Lindquist hopes by declaring his colleagues ‘friends’ and his missives ‘political,’ that the trial court will let him take his texts and go home,” she said. “The Supreme Court has said it has higher expectations. The Public Records Act does not contain a ‘Politician’ exemption. The trial court knows how to achieve transparency where public information is at risk. Nissen should be reading those texts soon.”

 
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