Crime

State disclosure watchdog sues Lindquist’s office

Add the state’s biggest public disclosure watchdog to the chorus of litigants taking aim at Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist’s office.

The nonprofit Washington Coalition for Open Government filed suit Monday against Pierce County, accusing Lindquist and his staff of violating the state’s public disclosure law.

Coalition President Toby Nixon said the organization rarely sues government agencies, but members of the WCOG board believed it was necessary because of “egregious” violations by the prosecutor’s office.

The WCOG board felt Pierce County’s continued disregard for the intent and spirit of the law has been so blatant, we needed to seek a court remedy. We are suing because of the ongoing wrongful withholding of records and failing to adopt rules to protect and preserve records.

Toby Nixon, president, Washington Coalition for Open Government

“The WCOG board felt Pierce County’s continued disregard for the intent and spirit of the law has been so blatant, we needed to seek a court remedy,” Nixon said. “We are suing because of the ongoing wrongful withholding of records and failing to adopt rules to protect and preserve records.”

Asked for comment Tuesday, Lindquist did not respond directly. An emailed reply came from deputy prosecutor Dan Hamilton, a team leader in the prosecutor’s civil division. He called the lawsuit “baseless” and attacked William Crittenden, WCOG’s attorney.

“Though he (Crittenden) obtained all disclosable records he requested from the County, he sues because he complains they were mailed rather than emailed as he demanded, not scanned into the format he demanded, and so on,” Hamilton wrote. “We expect this publicity stunt disguised as a lawsuit will be dismissed.”

Asked for comment Tuesday, Lindquist did not respond directly. An emailed reply came from deputy prosecutor Dan Hamilton, a team leader in the prosecutor’s civil division. Hamilton called the lawsuit “baseless” and attacked William Crittenden, WCOG’s attorney.

The WCOG lawsuit is related to a long-running case involving text messages on Lindquist’s personal phone.

Since April, Crittenden has asked for various records related to the case, believing they will show a conflict of interest: Lindquist is a personal party to the case, but he also supervises the attorneys who are defending the county’s position.

Lindquist and his senior attorneys insist no conflict exists.

The topic is a key aspect of the phone-records case, which has triggered a blistering legal battle among Lindquist, County Executive Pat McCarthy and the County Council. Arguments will be heard Friday in Thurston County Superior Court.

The coalition lawsuit is a separate matter.

It accuses Lindquist’s office of engaging in creative obstruction by delaying its responses to records requests, refusing to provide answers by email, providing hundreds of blackened pages without clear legal explanation and refusing to provide records in electronic form.

The lawsuit accuses Lindquist’s office of engaging in creative obstruction by delaying its responses to records requests, refusing to provide answers by email, providing hundreds of blackened pages without clear legal explanation, and refusing to provide records in electronic form.

Those actions reflect “the intent to be as unhelpful to the requester as possible, to cause delay, and to force WCOG to pay for useless paper copies of completely redacted records,” the lawsuit states.

The coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, tracks developments in disclosure law, and advocates for transparency at the Legislature and in the courts. It often files friend-of-the-court briefs in key legal cases involving public disclosure.

Its board members include lawyers, elected officials and leaders of news organizations. News Tribune Executive Editor Karen Peterson is a board member.

Peterson recused herself from the board’s recent vote to proceed with the lawsuit against Pierce County, because she might have to make news coverage decisions concerning the suit.

While the coalition’s lawsuit continues to seek the underlying public records, the complaint targets the prosecutor’s manner of responding to the requests.

Forcing requests through regular mail rather than electronic communication and declining to provide records in electronic form fails to meet the standard of providing “fullest assistance” to individuals seeking records, the lawsuit states.

Crittenden said the records sought by the coalition relate to an active public controversy and should have been released months ago.

“It is obvious that Mark Lindquist does not want those records to be disclosed, and he is willing to blatantly violate the Public Records Act in order to prevent or delay the release of those records,” he said.

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