Law enforcement reluctant to investigate missing records
An investigation, or lack thereof, of missing public records and a town computer has been to Olympia and back via Waterville, where it may soon end up anyway.
Coulee Dam Mayor F. Gregory Wilder, finding nothing but a brand new, unused computer in the mayor’s office on his first day on the job, asked Douglas County Sheriff Harvey Gjesdal for an investigation into the disappearance of the former mayor’s computer, along with all the public records it contained, including emails.
That computer, he had learned, had been unplugged and stored in a room with police department server computers, but it disappeared. The chief of police noted in a report dated Nov. 14, 2013, that it was discovered missing after then-Mayor Quincy Snow reported that the door to the room had been left open.
Wilder, who last fall had filed a public records request seeking all of Snow’s 2013 emails through October, asked Sheriff Harvey Gjesdal to investigate, noting that the town’s own police department couldn’t very well investigate the disappearance since that department had been in possession of the computer at the time it went missing.
“Injury to public records” is a Class C felony under state law.
Gjesdal suggested the Washington State Patrol might be a better choice, since it may more likely be seen as completely neutral.
“As you mentioned in your letter,” Gjesdal wrote to Wilder Jan. 15, “there could be some unpleasant political inferences made about this situation. … With a sensitive situation like the one you are dealing with, even the appearance of impropriety could muddy the facts in the eyes of the public.”
Wilder requested that WSP take on the investigation, noting the sheriff’s reluctance and reasoning.
The WSP conducting an investigation that should belong to another law enforcement agency can only be approved by the top officer of that statewide police force, Chief John Batiste.
“Given the potentially political nature of the matter, and prior allegiances, I feel that the investigation of this loss would better be accomplished from an independent point of view – that is by the WSP,” Wilder wrote to Batiste Jan. 28. “The Coulee Dam Town Hall, and the venue of loss, is located within Douglas County and I am requesting your assistance accordingly.”
But WSP, too, declined the matter, which should land in the jurisdiction of the local sheriff, wrote Assistant Chief Christopher T. Gundermann Feb. 7.
Wilder wrote back Feb. 20, lamenting that “the buck has been passed full circle,” and rhetorically asking for direction. “What do you actually think is our best recourse?” he wrote. “Ignore the loss/theft as a right and privilege of the perpetrator? Shrug our shoulders at the statute? Accept the decision of three law enforcement agencies as a combined philosophical statement regarding the value of public records?”
The mayor said Tuesday that he has not gotten a response back from the state patrol.
In the meantime, other state agencies have shown an interest, including the Office of the Attorney General and the state archivist in the Office of the Secretary of State.
At the suggestion of State Archivist Steve Excell, Wilder also wrote to former mayor Snow and to former Town Clerk Carol Visker asking for the “return (of) any hardware, software, and data/records contained on the hard-drive and/or backups thereof.” Wilder said the town is requesting a special audit by the State Auditor’s Office to determine the extent of any missing records.
In a Feb. 19 email released by the town, Excell told his staffers to secure the town’s ordinances and meeting minutes for safekeeping. And he noted that Assistant Attorney General for Open Government Nancy Krier had called about the case, which has piqued the interest of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Gjesdal told Wilder last week in an email that he was surprised by the state patrol’s response and that his office “will not leave you in the lurch on this.”
Wilder said Tuesday that he may soon call up Gjesdal and take him up on that pledge.