Washington's Employment Security Department will triple its public records staff in response to a $100,000 lawsuit accusing the agency of dragging its feet in fulfilling requests.
Lynn Brewer, a business consultant and mediator, filed the lawsuit last November after waiting months on requested communications between Gov. Jay Inslee and then-ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine. Those communications concerned a $650 million unemployment fraud case from last spring.
The request was filed on June 6, 2020, according to the lawsuit, which alleged Brewer had not received zero correspondence from ESD more than five months later. Brewer's lawsuit was filed in Thurston County Superior Court on November 13 by Tacoma attorney Joan Mell, who alleged ESD violated public records law by manufacturing “unreasonable” delays in providing the requested records.
Public agencies in the state must respond to requests within five business days under Washington's Public Records Act. They must also provide a timeframe for when those requests will be fulfilled and take the “most timely possible action.” Requesters are often left with no other recourse save for lawsuits if they are denied or not provided with their requested records.
Speaking to The Seattle Times, Brewer called herself an “accidental activist” who wanted to get to the bottom of the largest fraud case in state history.
“At the core of this is either incompetence, or they [ESD] certainly didn't see the urgency to get out the information,” she said.
The ESD has now agreed to a $100,000 settlement in Brewer's case. A summary judgment is due later this month.
In a statement, current ESD Commissioner Cami Feek said “historic demand and backlogs” placed the department under extreme pressure, which it will attempt to resolve.
“This workload came at the same time as a once-in-a-lifetime unemployment crisis and a never before seen criminal fraud attack,” Feek said. “To address these challenges, we have added additional staff and updated our technology and processes in order to avoid the unfortunate delays that requesters experienced this past year and a half.”
The ESD has announced several reforms in response to Brewer's lawsuit. The department will increase its number of public records officers from one to three and require all employees to retain all text messages and online chats concerning official ESD business. ESD employees will also not be given heads up before the release of any requested records when not legally required.
Brewer has been honored by the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a government watchdog group, for her pursuit of government accountability.
“Citizen vigilance is the key to keeping government open and transparent,” said WCOG President Mike Fancher, a former Seattle Times executive editor, in a statement. “Lynn epitomizes that idea. She wouldn't take no for an answer, and WCOG is proud to honor her.”
Investigations into how the ESD was left vulnerable by hackers have been plagued by reported conflicts between ESD officials and the state auditor's office. So far, the ESD reports it recovered $370 million of the $650 million stolen.
Two Nigerian men are accused by federal prosecutors of allegedly stealing jobless benefits from ESD using stolen identities. They await trial dates.
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