Mark Lindquist
Mark Lindquist

Crime

Long-held Lindquist text told employee to arrange comments on TNT story

January 05, 2016 9:09 AM

For four years, in a legal fight that climbed to the Washington State Supreme Court and back, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist has insisted that a text message he wrote in 2011 to one of his employees had nothing to do with public business.

The employee, former deputy prosecutor Mary Robnett, disagrees. In a letter recently sent to county leaders, Robnett revealed the contents of Lindquist’s long-held text message and declared her belief that it related to public business.

The message: “Tell allies to comment on TNT story.”

Robnett’s letter, obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure, is a stealth bombshell that could change the dynamic of the long-running public-disclosure lawsuit between sheriff’s deputy Glenda Nissen and the county.

Nissen and her attorney, Joan Mell, sued for access to Lindquist’s text messages, believing they would prove that Lindquist continued to retaliate against Nissen after signing a settlement and agreeing not to do so. Taxpayers have shelled out more than $315,000 to defend the case.

The message to Robnett reveals the prosecutor directing a subordinate to arrange comments on a news story involving his office.

The text message reveals the prosecutor directing a subordinate to arrange comments on a news story involving his office. The News Tribune has verified that employees of the prosecutor’s office created handles, some anonymous, to post online comments on news stories.

Is the text message a public record? Lindquist says it isn’t. Robnett says it is. Her accompanying letter explains why.

“One of (Lindquist’s) text messages to me related to the county business of settling a claim against the county and/or the business of dealing with resulting publicity related to his settlement of the claims,” Robnett’s letter states. “The message is a ‘suggestion’ or directive to me, a county employee. As such, I believe the message contains information that refers to or impacts the actions, processes, and functions of Pierce County government or information that relates to the conduct or performance of Pierce County government.”

Robnett’s statements contradict a recent sworn affidavit from Lindquist regarding the same text message. He summarized his message to Robnett as “suggesting a political strategy to deal with a news story.” Lindquist added, more broadly, “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.”

Asked for comment Tuesday, Lindquist referred questions to his attorney, Stewart Estes, who is representing Lindquist personally at no cost.

Via email, Estes said the text message to Robnett was political and therefore not a public record. He added that the case has “never been about these insignificant text messages,” but the privacy rights of public employees.

“Under the Supreme Court ruling, just because a communication might refer to work does not make it a public record,” Estes wrote.

I believe the message contains information that refers to or impacts the actions, processes, and functions of Pierce County government or information that relates to the conduct or performance of Pierce County government.

Mary Robnett, former deputy prosecutor

The text-message case recently sparked a separate power struggle between the prosecutor’s office, the County Council and county Executive Pat McCarthy. Robnett’s letter adds a new wrinkle. The council and McCarthy met Monday in a lengthy closed-door executive session, also attended by Michael Tardif, the outside attorney representing the county in the phone-records lawsuit.

Tuesday, Tardif said the county will continue to argue that Lindquist has fulfilled disclosure obligations mandated by the state Supreme Court, and that the lawsuit should end. However, Tardif said that Lindquist’s attorney has proposed allowing Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor to conduct a private in-camera review of all six text messages that are in dispute, including the key message sent to Robnett.

Following that review, Tabor could decide whether any of the messages meet the definition of a public record. Such a finding could expose the county to legal penalties associated with wrongful withholding of public records. No date has been set for the judge’s review.

“The question for the judge will be, is political discourse part of county business?” Tardif said.

The argument dovetails with Lindquist’s contention that his text message was a form of campaigning, though he was not a candidate for office in August 2011; he had been elected nine months earlier.

The argument dovetails with Lindquist’s contention that his text message was a form of campaigning, though he was not a candidate for office in August 2011; he had been elected nine months earlier.

Joan Mell, Nissen’s attorney, said the message is “obviously a public record,” and should have been disclosed four years ago.

“It’s just ridiculous that we have to keep playing these never-ending games,” she said.

Viewed in context, the short text message adds an obsessive coda to a cluster of public records dating to Aug. 2, 2011, all revolving around the same subject. On that day, The News Tribune published a story describing a settlement between Nissen and the county. Nissen had filed a claim for damages, accusing Lindquist of retaliating against her because she criticized him politically.

The News Tribune had asked for a statement from the county. Public records show that Lindquist fussed with the wording for much of the day. One staffer, former county spokesman Hunter George, wrote an email to colleagues saying he negotiated with Lindquist for five hours over two sentences.

“Five hours,” George wrote. “Man.”

The story appeared on Tuesday afternoon, but Lindquist still didn’t like the wording. Additional records show that he continued to press the issue throughout the day, communicating with county employees over his private phone. Working through those intermediaries, Lindquist persuaded a reporter and editors to accept his proposed minor revisions.

The story appeared on Tuesday afternoon, but Lindquist still didn’t like the wording. Additional records show that he continued to press the issue throughout the day, communicating with county employees over his private phone. Working through those intermediaries, Lindquist persuaded a reporter and editors to accept his proposed revisions.

After those changes were made, Lindquist continued his efforts to influence the story. That’s where the text message comes in. He sent it to Robnett at 11:51 p.m.

“Tell allies to comment on TNT story,” the message said.

Who were the allies? Robnett said she didn’t know and did not recall whether she followed Lindquist’s “directive.” She left the prosecutor’s office in 2012, following a dispute with Lindquist. The News Tribune has verified that employees of the prosecutor’s office created handles, some anonymous, to post online comments on news stories. Whether those employees commented on the Aug. 2 news story is unknown; the comment system used at the time no longer exists in the paper’s archives.

She told The News Tribune she had forgotten about the text message in the intervening years, and realized only recently that some of the messages referenced in the lawsuit were sent to her. Robnett said she asked Lindquist to provide her with copies of the messages, but he did not respond. She obtained the message through other means.

Estes, Lindquist’s personal attorney, stated that Robnett was Lindquist’s political ally in 2010, “and continued to assist politically in 2011 as he prepared for the next election (in 2014).” Estes also said the unnamed “allies” in the message were political.

“The ‘allies’ referred to in a text message at 11:51 p.m. by definition are political,” Estes wrote. “Under the law, it would have been improper for Mr. Lindquist to send this political communication on his office phone. Therefore, he properly used his personal phone for this political communication.”

“The ‘allies’ referred to in a text message at 11:51 p.m. by definition are political,” Estes wrote. “Under the law, it would have been improper for Mr. Lindquist to send this political communication on his office phone. Therefore, he properly used his personal phone for this political communication.”

Robnett’s recent letter to county officials takes a different position, noting that Lindquist used his personal cellphone rather than a county-issued phone for almost all of his business and called her almost daily, including on evenings and weekends, to discuss work-related matters. She adds that she wasn’t involved in campaigning for Lindquist in 2011.

“Mark has characterized one of his August 2, 2011 text messages to me as ‘suggesting a political strategy to deal with a news story.’ I was not involved in any political campaign for Mark at that time. Mark is an elected official and his daily decisions related to the operation of the prosecutor’s office often involved considerations regarding his political and/or personal image. Regardless of his concerns related to his image, the message from him to me related to a news story about a settlement he brokered on behalf of the county.”

Toby Nixon, president of the nonprofit Washington Coalition for Open Government, has followed the text message case closely. Told of the content of Lindquist’s message, he said it created more potential legal problems for the prosecutor.

“If he’s claiming it was political, it could be even more damaging, because then he’s directing a county employee to work on his campaign, which is just prohibited. (Robnett) assumed that she was receiving a direction to do something in the context of her job,” Nixon said. “It’s just astounding, but not surprising in view of everything we’ve seen come out of Mark Lindquist’s office. If he would have just dealt with this instantly, it would have blown over long ago and not cost anybody anything. He could have just apologized and said I’ll never do it again.”

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