Has state agency destroyed 88 million public records that could bear on $1.1 billion unemployment fraud?

Wilson seeks answers from Employment Security Department

OLYMPIA – Sen. Jeff Wilson is seeking answers from the state Employment Security Department following a news account indicating that it may have destroyed 88 million public records, including those that might shed light on last year’s massive unemployment fraud.

Last week, KIRO radio reported that a woman who filed a Public Records Act request for documents concerning the billion-dollar fraud case received a tip that the agency was contemplating mass destruction of internal agency records. The requester, Lynn Brewer, already had won a $100,000 settlement from the agency after it failed to respond to a public records request in accordance with state law.

“If ESD has destroyed 88 million public records, and some of them related to the fraud case, it could be the biggest-ever abuse of our state’s public records law,” said Wilson, R-Longview. “The court fine that could be involved here could be enormous, and it would have to be paid at taxpayer expense. And it raises the question, what are they trying to hide?

“We don’t know whether the story is true. We don’t know if records were destroyed. We don’t know how many of them concerned the fraud case. But the agency’s silence since the story was posted last Thursday is enough to make anyone wonder. The Legislature needs answers, and so do the people of Washington.”

Wilson is ranking Republican on the Senate State Government and Elections Committee, and is a newly appointed member of the state committee that oversees public records law, the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee, better known as the “Sunshine Committee.”

Wilson delivered a formal letter to the Employment Security Department Tuesday, asking for clarification. Among his questions – has the agency considered destroying records related to the fraud? Has it done so? And if the records exist, why didn’t the agency produce them when it received a bona fide request under the state Public Records Act?

Last year, at the peak of the COVID shutdown, the agency revealed that it had paid out at least $646 million to Nigerian fraudsters who had posed as legitimate applicants for unemployment-insurance benefits. An audit from the state Auditor’s Office this spring said the state’s losses could be much higher, as much as $1.1 billion. The fraud delayed unemployment payments to thousands of applicants as the agency reexamined payouts and instituted new financial controls.

Lynn Brewer, a business-ethics writer from Kittitas County, filed a Public Records Act request in June 2020 for records related to the fraud case, but ESD failed to respond within deadlines imposed by state law – or at all. Frustrated by the agency’s silence, she filed a lawsuit last November, citing unreasonable delays. The failure to produce records blocked public review of the details of the fraud case, and undermined a possible class-action lawsuit on behalf of Washington residents whose benefits were delayed.

The agency eventually settled Brewer’s claim for $100,000 as a date for judgement approached in Thurston County Superior Court. The agency has been producing records in installments.

In an interview with KIRO radio last week, Brewer said her attorney received a tip from an insider at the agency that ESD intended to delete all electronic chat messages between department employees and agency consultants. According to the anonymous telephone message, the agency intended for the mass destruction to take place during the weekend of July 31 and Aug. 1.

If any of the chat messages concerned the imposter fraud case – the single biggest issue for ESD last year – the law required the agency to produce them. Brewer’s request encompassed all electronic records related to the fraud.

Brewer told KIRO that she immediately filed a new Public Records Act request for chat records between March 2020 and July 30, 2021. The agency responded that the request was too broad because 88 million chat records were involved. She narrowed her request to records involving imposter fraud, and the agency has replied that it will respond by Sept. 27.

Wilson noted that if the agency destroyed records after Brewer requested them, it is a flagrant violation of state law. “The number of records involved here is staggering,” Wilson said. “The Legislature needs to know what is going on at ESD, and ESD needs to answer. The taxpayers have already had to pay $100,000 for the agency’s foot-dragging. The Legislature has the ability and the duty to demand answers. We need to know the truth.”

Wilson said he hopes the agency recognizes the gravity of the case, and expects that it will respond quickly to a query from the Legislature.