A Pierce County deputy prosecutor used an anonymous handle to post online comments on a News Tribune story in 2011, disparaging sheriff’s deputy Glenda Nissen and her attorney after county leaders, including Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, brokered a settlement with Nissen and agreed not to retaliate against her.
The discovery of the anonymous comment, linked to deputy prosecutor Mike Sommerfeld, adds a layer of intrigue to a long-running legal battle over text messages on Lindquist’s phone, set for a Friday clash in Thurston County Superior Court. The comment also could play a role in a related $6.5 million damage claim from Nissen, who contends that Lindquist and his staffers continued to retaliate against her for four more years, despite the agreement not to do so.
The text message case and the anonymous comment revolve around the same circumstances: a news story published on Aug. 2, 2011, describing a $39,500 settlement with Nissen. She had filed a claim for damages, saying Lindquist retaliated against her at work because she criticized him politically.
“Pierce County agrees that Ms. Nissen will not be retaliated against for bringing forward her claims,” the agreement stated.
Sommerfeld’s anonymous comment on the settlement story, no longer available online, called Nissen’s lawsuit “more than frivolous.” The comment referred to internal circumstances surrounding the settlement, and added that it would prevent Nissen’s attorney, Joan Mell, from “extorting county taxpayers … to prove that her lawsuit is ridiculous.”
The News Tribune linked Sommerfeld to the comment through internal records and sources who followed the 2011 story and preserved copies. He wrote under the handle “porfirypetrovich,” a reference to a character in Dostoevsky’s novel, “Crime and Punishment.” Additional comments tied to the same handle appeared on other News Tribune stories regarding Nissen.
Told of the anonymous comments, Mell said it supports her contention that the prosecutor’s office continued to retaliate against her client.
“Sommerfeld’s disguised comment means you cannot trust Mark Lindquist or his office to keep their promises, or behave respectfully,” Mell said. “ ‘Res ipsa loquitur’ is lawyer speak for ‘the thing speaks for itself.’ His comment looks and feels hateful to me and my client.”
Sommerfeld declined to make a statement when reached by The News Tribune. He continues to work at the prosecutor’s office. In 2012, Lindquist assigned him as legal adviser to Sheriff Paul Pastor.
Pastor said Tuesday he had not known about the anonymous comment, and declined to say more.
“It does concern me, and I will be looking into it further,” he said.
Lindquist, asked for a statement Tuesday, did not respond.
ANONYMOUS COMMENT TIED TO SETTLEMENT AND TEXT MESSAGE CASE
Various public records show that Lindquist spent the day of Aug. 2, 2011, trying to manage the news story about the settlement and seeking minor changes after it was published. Following publication, Lindquist sent a key text message from his private cell phone to Mary Robnett, his chief criminal deputy. The message directed Robnett to “Tell allies to comment on TNT story.”
Robnett has said she did not comment on the story, or tell others to do so.
One aspect of Friday’s court hearing will focus on whether the text message was a public record, as Robnett believes, or “political strategy,” as Lindquist contends. If Judge Gary Tabor concludes that the text message is public, the county could be exposed to fines and penalties for withholding it. Taxpayers have shelled out more than $325,000 so far to defend Lindquist’s position.
Lindquist’s political adviser, Alex Hays, said Tuesday that the text message falls into a “third zone” of records that aren’t about public business or politics, but personal concerns about the public perception of the prosecutor’s office.
“It’s not related to public work,” Hays said. “It is about the office’s public reputation.”
In a similar vein, Lindquist has argued that his text message is immune from disclosure because it involved political management of a news story, and that Robnett was acting, in effect, as a kind of campaign staffer.
Robnett, in a sworn declaration filed Jan. 9, disagrees.
“I was not involved in, or aware of, any political campaign for Mark Lindquist in August of 2011,” she wrote. “I was never in a position to communicate directly with any campaign employees or volunteers who were not also employees of the prosecutor’s office.
“I understand his reference to ‘allies’ to mean other county employees under my supervision. This message, prepared by him and sent to me, is a directive to me, a subordinate county employee. Given these circumstances, the message he prepared and sent contains information that refers to or impacts the actions, processes and functions of Pierce County government and/or information that relates to the conduct or performance of Pierce County government.”
The declaration from Robnett puts the county in a potentially troublesome legal bind regarding the text message, but that’s not all. The anonymous comment posted on the news story was made immediately after Lindquist brokered an agreement not to retaliate — the very reason Nissen sued for access to the text messages in the first place.
NISSEN INVESTIGATED FOR DEATH THREAT, DENIED INVOLVEMENT
The backstory of Nissen’s battle with the prosecutor’s office is long and complicated. In 2010, she wrote an email to The News Tribune that criticized Lindquist. She sent a second email a few hours later, saying her first email was a mistake, and asking that it not be published.
A few days later, Robnett received an anonymous death threat in a letter delivered to her mailbox at home, rife with odd misspellings. It included printed links to old news stories involving prosecutors who had been killed.
An investigation began; the timing of Nissen’s email to The News Tribune caused sheriff’s detectives to investigate Nissen’s possible involvement in the threat letter. One detective fixed on three words in the threat letter: “Yu were nawty.” The detective recalled that Nissen had used similar phrasing to describe criminal suspects.
Confronted later, Nissen admitted sending the email to The News Tribune, but denied any knowledge of the threat letter. Detectives found no forensic evidence linking Nissen to the threat letter. It bore a King County postmark; Nissen lived in Kitsap County. Searches of Nissen’s phone and computers she used found no ties to the threat letter. The investigation of her involvement concluded in March 2011, and was subsequently forwarded to Kitsap County prosecutors. They declined to file charges, citing lack of evidence.
Records show that Lindquist was actively involved in the investigation, and discouraged a sheriff’s detective, Denny Wood, from looking at any suspect but Nissen.
A statement from Wood written in 2015 and obtained by The News Tribune describes his interactions with Lindquist during the investigation, including numerous phone calls and meetings.
According to Wood, Lindquist said, “You know she did it,” referring to Nissen and the threat letter.
“I told him that I didn’t know if (Nissen) did it, because of the evidence or lack thereof,” Wood wrote. “(Lindquist) again stated something to the effect of, ‘We both know she did it, Denny. Even though there is not enough evidence, you still know she is guilty.’ ”
Other records show that the sheriff’s office developed a lead on another possible suspect in the threat-letter case. Lindquist called a meeting with Craig Adams, then the sheriff’s attorney, and demanded to know the name of the suspect. Adams declined, citing his oath of confidentiality. Lindquist then asked Pastor to waive confidentiality, but Pastor refused.
Following that encounter, Lindquist suggested to his high-ranking staffers that Adams should be removed as the sheriff’s legal adviser. Subsequently Adams left to become a court commissioner; Lindquist then assigned Mike Sommerfeld, the deputy prosecutor who wrote the anonymous comments, as Pastor’s adviser.
Though Sommerfeld wrote his anonymous comment on the 2011 news story from a private account, he was commenting on a public settlement involving the prosecutor’s office, while Nissen was technically still facing an active criminal investigation.
A recent federal court ruling from Louisiana speaks to the dangers of prosecutors making anonymous comments online about public matters. The case involved police officers accused of misconduct in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Court records show that U.S. attorneys posted numerous anonymous comments about the case on the New Orleans Times-Picayune news site.
The anonymous online comments tainted the case and violated prosecutorial ethics, federal judges found.