Opinion

Prosecutor, Port feel withering heat of judicial sunshine

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese speaks at a December hearing on a lawsuit filed against the Washington Legislature by a coalition of news media organizations over records access. Lanese later ruled legislators were in long-standing violation of the state's Public Records Act.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese speaks at a December hearing on a lawsuit filed against the Washington Legislature by a coalition of news media organizations over records access. Lanese later ruled legislators were in long-standing violation of the state's Public Records Act. AP file photo

Twice in the last month, judges have slapped steep fines on elected Pierce County officials for violating Washington’s open-government law. Both times, the judges minced no words in denouncing the violations.

This week’s annual observance of Sunshine Week is a good time to reflect on those cases. It’s also a good opportunity to applaud judges who force light into the stubbornly dark corners of government.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist was called out by a judge last Friday for continuing to insist office-related text messages on his private phone are of no public concern. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, noting Lindquist’s pattern of defiance, meted out $349,000 in fines and attorney fees for a handful of texts the prosecutor should’ve released years ago.

“The court doesn’t see much in terms of conduct or words to indicate that matters have improved,” Lanese said. “There’s no privacy interest in public records. Public records belong to the public.”

Those last six words seem comically obvious to us, yet Washington judges have to admonish public servants with alarming frequency.

A month earlier, Port of Tacoma officials received a similarly stern message. They’d been communicating with local economic leaders about how to respond to activists upset with fossil-fuel projects. Failing to disclose all those records spurred Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson to impose a $159,000 penalty for gross negligence and for acting in bad faith.

“The Port’s intransigence warrants a penalty that will deter future malfeasance,” Cuthbertson wrote.

Both cases highlight the key role courts play in enforcing Washington’s 46-year-old Public Records Act. The law doesn’t leave room for judges to pussyfoot around, and it’s refreshing to see neither Lanese or Cuthbertson did.

Lanese is the same judge who recently ruled the Legislature violated the PRA by withholding emails and a host of other records. That ruling, combined with news media pressure and eventual agreement from legislators not to recklessly adopt a special exemption for themselves, was a ray of sunshine breaking through the Olympia gloom.

Some observers will look at the small number of documents withheld by Lindquist (nine text messages) and the Port (three pages of records) and conclude the judges’ orders were too harsh.

They weren’t. A poke in the eye of public oversight can do nearly as much damage as a fist.

Lindquist’s case stands apart in the hall of shame because he’s a serial offender and should know better. Since 2012, he’s relied on county resources to fight his losing battle to keep text messages from a former Sheriff’s deputy. It’s a battle that has stretched from Superior Court up to the state Supreme Court and back down again.

Including the cost of outside legal counsel, the county will shell out more than $1 million to underwrite Lindquist’s crusade of nondisclosure. After Lanese’s January order to give up the nine texts, Lindquist complied — sort of, through a Facebook post — although by calling them “trivial” and “insignificant,” the headstrong prosecutor showed no contrition or growth.

While many public records cases point to broad institutional lapses, Lanese sharply customized his ruling last week. “Mark Lindquist did not comply with the Public Records Act,” Lanese said.

As usual, Lindquist steered clear of the courtroom, ducking personal accountability. Voters shouldn’t give him that luxury.

As he seeks reelection in 2018, Pierce County residents should ask him how he will answer for his mistakes, and how he’ll obey Washington’s landmark government transparency law if given four more years.

Keeping the spirit of Sunshine Week burning year-round is a job not just for judges and journalists, but for everyone.

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