Lindquist text messages need truly independent review

From the editorial board

Pierce County Council Chairman Dan Roach
Pierce County Council Chairman Dan Roach Pierce County

The legal dispute over Mark Lindquist’s cell phone records has become so baroque as to defy description. But one key question could be cleared up in an Olympia courtroom — and the Pierce County Council ought to welcome that prospect, not resist it.

For four years now, a sheriff’s deputy has been trying to get at text messages she believes could help prove that Lindquist — the county prosecutor — illegally retaliated against her. In a ruling almost as complex as the case, the Washington Supreme Court in August held that Lindquist must release texts he sent from his private cellphone if they involve county business.

The court gave him the discretion to decide which messages were public, then attest under penalty of perjury that he’d released them all. On Thursday, he filed an affidavit saying that all the messages were private. If he got that wrong, he has exposed the county to expensive legal claims for violating the Public Records Act.

We’re not presuming bad faith on Lindquist’s part, but it seems clear that his interests don’t overlap the county’s interests. Yet under a state statute, he has appointed the special prosecutors who will represent the county in the dispute. In other words, he has hand-picked the people who will review his decisions.

This strikes us as a conflict of interest, as a matter of common sense if not as a matter of law.

County Executive Pat McCarthy and county risk manager Mark Maenhout want Lindquist out of the case entirely. They’re up against a law that says a county’s litigation must be handled by the county prosecutor, but they believe a judge could override the statute under the circumstances and pull Lindquist’s office from the case.

We don’t claim to be attorneys, but it would seem strange if no exception could be made for a dispute in which the prosecutor’s own text messages are at the center of the litigation.

The County Council is the 600-pound gorilla here; it supervises county litigation. But Chairman Dan Roach has taken to barking out orders in support of Lindquist’s position and battling McCarthy’s attempt to get a court ruling.

This isn’t just about politics and clashing personalities. The public’s tax money is on the line. Under Lindquist’s direction, the county has already spent more than $300,000 resisting the release of his cellphone information. The meter will be running as long as the lawyers are arguing. If information is still being withheld illegally, the cost will go higher yet.

So why fight to keep a judge out of the loop?

The court could very well side with Lindquist. The statute is on his side. One of his senior deputies has offered a substantial opinion that there’s no conflict of interest.

If councilmembers wanted that stance confirmed, getting a court ruling would seem the best way to do it. In fact, they’d be asking for the ruling themselves.

The effort to keep the question away from a judge, however, suggests that somebody doesn’t think this is really a slam-dunk and that McCarthy might actually be right. The public would be best protected by getting the dispute cleared up — in court.