The lawsuits filed by the victims’ families of the Oso landslide claiming the state’s actions contributed to the death of 43 people represented an enormous test of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office.
It was not just that this was billed as the most expensive personal-injury case against the state of Washington in history. It was also a chance for the victims’ families to find the truth about the origin of the deadliest landslide in U.S. history.
With those stakes, Ferguson’s staff made a historic and embarrassing mistake, committing what appears to be the biggest — at least in terms of dollars — violation of discovery rules in state history.
The state has been forced to pay a $1.2 million sanction for the “willful” deletion of at least 1,000 potentially damaging emails passed among expert witnesses hired by the attorney general.
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The case is now settled, with insurers and a timber company paying $50 million and the state paying $10 million, plus the $1.2 million fine.
So it is time for Ferguson to tell citizens, specifically, what went wrong and the steps he has taken to fix it.
Ferguson has accepted fault, has effectively fired an attorney his office brought in specially for the case and has launched an internal investigation.
He should consider commissioning an external investigation to give an independent investigator free rein to see who knew what and when – including Ferguson himself. He says he had no idea what was going on.
A review of those emails, ordered by the judge in the case, was halted when the case settled just before trial. However, the public needs to know more.
Ferguson also needs to explain how his management and training protocols will change. They clearly are lax: The judge in the case said the decision to delete the emails was “willful” and the fine was intended to be big enough to force the attorney general to re-educate his staff.
What attorney in 2016 thinks deleting a bunch of emails is a good idea?
The judge’s ruling on the email debacle shows that at least two of Ferguson’s lawyers knew or should have known about the deletion. It also clearly describes what a big ethical mistake it was, withholding evidence that clearly should have been turned over to the families of the victims of the slide and their lawyers.
The Seattle Times editorial board endorsed Ferguson for re-election before the scope of this scandal was clear. That endorsement still stands, somewhat reluctantly, because Ferguson’s opponent — libertarian Joshua Trumbull — is not qualified to run the state’s biggest law firm.
But Ferguson’s otherwise solid record took a big hit with the Oso case. Taxpayers had to swallow a $1.2 million fine because his office committed a historic, preventable error.
What is Ferguson going to do to repair the damage and make sure it never happens again?