(Updated 9:00pm Monday — scroll down to the bottom for the latest)
Just when you thought the thirty-year-old allegations of sexual abuse against Mayor Ed Murray were finally fading away, the Seattle Times published some new evidence over the weekend: a long-lost Oregon Child Protective Services file in which a services worker discusses the allegations that Murray sexually abused his foster child, Jeff Simpson, and finds them credible.
In response, Council member Lorena Gonzalez issued a statement this morning calling on the Mayor to consider resigning, and if he doesn’t take action by next Monday asking her fellow Council members to consider their options to remove him from office.
A note upfront: I have been resisting writing about this whole topic, for several reasons. First, I have no direct experience with the issue and no personal frame of reference from which to approach it, so anything I do say lacks authority. Second, so many people with much more relevant perspective have been discussing it at length, so much better than I could. Third, this blog is about the City Council, while this issue has really been about the Mayor — up until now. Today that changed, with Council members actively and publicly contemplating whether they need to take action, in what would be a major precedent in Seattle politics with significant implications for the political and policy landscape of the city. To the extent that the Council is involved, I’ll now write about this, starting with the piece below, but I encourage you to seek out other reports and discussions representing a wide, diverse set of viewpoints since this is such a difficult topic with so few clear answers.
I strongly suggest that you take a few minutes and read the 5-page CPS case file yourself, end-to-end, rather than relying on summaries in the press, to get a sense for the sequence of events that transpired and the level of effort that went into the investigation. There are some redacted parts which hide the identity of another foster parent that Jeff Simpson also accused of sexually abusing him (a point that Murray confirms in a statement released yesterday).
It’s important to point out how challenging these cases are from both sides. Survivors of sexual abuse often internalize and carry with them the trauma of being abused for the rest of their lives, and it’s hardly surprising or unusual for a survivor to not speak up for years, or even decades — at which point there is scant forensic evidence to prove their allegations. And when they do speak up, many have their credibility, character, and morals questioned by the people they accuse (and the accused’s defenders). As many people have written extensively, sexual abuse is frequently not about sex; it’s about power. It’s about exerting power over those without the power to defend themselves. Powerful people often have powerful allies, and together they can create a formidable and intimidating presence that most people are unwilling to challenge — especially knowing the response it will provoke. That’s why sexual abuse frequently goes unreported.
But on the other hand, our society believes that people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and this case has never seen the inside of a courtroom. In fact, prosecutors looked at this case and declined to file charges. That doesn’t mean that the prosecutors actually believed Murray or disbelieved his accuser (though it’s clear from the document released yesterday that the CPS worker believed Simpson’s accusation despite his credibility issues), but Murray is now being tried in the court of public opinion on the basis of a CPS worker’s report from 1984 that he has never had the opportunity to challenge. We need to hold our public officials to a very high standard, and we need to support abuse survivors when they speak up, but we also need to afford the accused their due process rights — especially since public officials are such easy targets for attacks. There is no easy or obvious way to balance these concerns.
That brings us back to Gonzalez’s statement this morning. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine):
“I have had an opportunity to work both for and with the Mayor, first as his legal counsel and now as a councilmember. I believe that together we have been able to achieve great results for the people of Seattle because of our positive and productive relationship. Together, we have significantly advanced police reform, banned conversion therapy on minors, funded a $1 million civil legal aid program for immigrants and refugees and doubled-down on our welcoming city commitments. For these achievements, I am incredibly grateful to the Mayor and his staff. The Mayor’s collaborative approach and his tireless commitment to public service is to be admired. These achievements and my admiration for his ability to get things done are why I endorsed his bid for re-election before these allegations came to light.
“I am, however, now deeply concerned about this Mayor’s ability to continue leading the Executive branch in light of the recently released documents. While the caseworker’s report is not proof of criminal guilt, the gravity of the materials in the findings and the continued attention these issues will receive, raise questions about the ability of the Mayor, his office, his Department heads and senior management to remain focused on the critical issues facing our city. As a result, I am asking the Mayor to consider stepping down as Mayor and to work collaboratively with a subcommittee of the City Council to craft an Executive Leadership Transition Strategy.
“If the Mayor continues to serve as Mayor, then by no later than July 24, 2017, the City Council should convene its own committee to determine if a transition in Executive leadership is merited under these circumstances.
“A collaborative approach is my preferred approach but the leadership of this City, including the Mayor, must proceed in a manner that will balance the ongoing need to effectively govern while acknowledging the grave harm caused by proceeding with a status-quo mentality. This situation is unprecedented in our city’s history. We cannot pretend otherwise.”
This statement led to a discussion at this morning’s Council Briefing: about the Mayor, the CPS report, and the options available to the Council. Gonzalez introduced the topic by referring to her statement, and noting that she had talked to the Mayor and unnamed “others in the community.” “I feel like we need to show leadership,” she said, and expressed her hope that the City Council can come together on “how we govern moving forward.”
Council President Harrell, along with Council members Bagshaw, Juarez and Burgess, were far more cautious in their comments, both in asserting the mayor’s due process rights against an accusation from over 30 years ago, and in a measured defense of his ability to continue doing his job. Harrell observed that “the Mayor is showing up for work every day.” Burgess noted that already “the city has turned in many ways to who our next Mayor will be.” Juarez said, “I was not raised to pass judgment on anybody,” and listed off a number of important issues facing the city that she is most concerned about instead.
Council member Sawant was absent from this morning’s discussion. Council members O’Brien and Herbold were silent, and Council member Johnson’s only comment was his hope that “we can redouble our efforts to support organizations that support victims and survivors.”
There was some discussion on what the Council’s next steps, if any, could potentially be, if it were to consider attempting to remove the Mayor from office. The guiding law is Article 5, Section 10 of the City Charter:
Sec. 10. REMOVAL OF MAYOR: The Mayor may be removed from office after a hearing, for any willful violation of duty, or for the commission of an offense involving moral turpitude, upon written notice from the City Council at least five days before the hearing. He or she shall have the right to be present, to the aid of counsel, to offer evidence and to be heard in his or her own behalf. Upon the affirmative vote of two-thirds of all the members of the City Council, acting as a court of impeachment, the office shall become vacant.
Some notes on this:
- Removing the Mayor requires a hearing — in effect an impeachment trial. That would involve evidence and witnesses.
- The Council would need to find the Mayor guilty of “the commission of an offense involving moral turpitude.”
- Removing him from office would require a two-thirds vote of the City Council — seven of the nine Council members. As of this morning, four seem unconvinced.
- If the Mayor were removed, Council President Harrell would become acting Mayor, presumably until the November election.
The Council members expressed the need both to have longer discussions with each other on a one-to-one basis so as not to invoke the Open Public Meetings Act, as well as to get briefed by legal counsel on their options moving forward. However, Harrell wasn’t sure what the appropriate forum is for getting briefed on their options — it may not be an executive session — and is working that through.
Clearly it’s going to be an interesting and stressful week for the Council, as well as the Mayor, as they weigh their options. Several of them see this as a crisis of governance for the city and want to ensure that the Council shows “strong leadership,” though as Harrell pointed out this morning “we can disagree with what strong leadership means.”
Here is Mayor Murray’s full statement as released by email yesterday through his spokesperson, Jeff Reading. (I’m including it here, as I can’t find it posted online.)
“I have said from the beginning that I never harmed or had an inappropriate relationship with Jeff Simpson. That remains just as true today as when I first said it. I have never engaged in sexual activity with Jeff Simpson or with any other minor.
“The Seattle Times story today does not change the basic facts of what happened in 1984, nor does it offer any tangible new evidence to buttress Jeff’s claim. More than thirty years ago, Jeff made an accusation against me – and, contrary to what he had previously told the Times and other local media, against another foster parent.
‘Those accusations were fully investigated at the time, and the District Attorney decided there was too much doubt to go forward with a case against me or the other foster parent. In fact, after examining the hundreds of pages of documents generated by the investigation, the District Attorney actually withdrew the case from the Grand Jury.
“The Child Protective Services documents the Times based its story on obviously do not tell the full story. Consistent with the findings of the District Attorney that the accusations could not be proven, there is a record with numerous accounts from others who found considerable credibility issues with Jeff and his claims.
“Jeff’s case worker at CPS never interviewed me or shared her findings with me or my attorney. That she believed Jeff’s claims at the time and advocated on his behalf is painful to see, but does not change the fact that, based on the totality of the evidence that was collected, the District Attorney declined to file charges.”
“The District Attorney wrote that her withdrawing of the case does not mean that Jeff Simpson’s claims are false. But this statement should not be taken to mean that she believed them to be true.
“Thirty-three years ago, I opened my home to a young man who, like all children, I believed deserved a stable, supportive home environment. Given my honest and heartfelt commitment to creating this for Jeff, his accusations were and remain incredibly painful, especially given that none of them are based in truth or reality. It is my sincerest hope now – as it was then – that he is provided the help and support he needs to lead a happy life.”
UPDATED: Mayor Murray released a statement this afternoon:
“Since the day several months ago when sexual abuse allegations surfaced against me in the media, I have been clear that those allegations are false. They remain just as false today as they were back then.
“But I also know that the allegations about events more than 30 years ago have created a cloud of uncertainty in the public mind. That is why in May I announced that I would not seek reelection to the job that I love, serving as mayor of Seattle. As I said at the time, it was a very difficult and painful decision for me, but upon reflection I felt that putting the best interests of the city first meant that I had to announce that I would step aside and allow someone else to take leadership of City government at the end of my term.
“Guiding my decisions is my continued focus on what is in the best interest of the city. I know that today a member of the Council has issued a statement calling on me to resign, and warning of action against me if I do not. I continue to believe such a course of action would not be in the city’s best interest. That is why I am not going to resign, and intend to complete the few remaining months of my term as mayor.
“My administration and I continue to govern the city effectively, and I am proud that we continue to deliver results that will improve the lives of the people of Seattle. Last week we announced the opening of an innovative, 75-bed Navigation Center to help house homeless people suffering on our streets. Today we are announcing an agreement to expand the use of body cameras by Seattle Police, so we can increase transparency and accountability and strengthen the bonds of trust between police and our communities. And we have many more important announcements coming over the next few months.
“Seattle needs steady, focused leadership over the next several months. We have a lot of work to do. Establishing an effective transition between administrations takes months of careful planning and preparation – work that I and my team have already begun. We do not need the sort of abrupt and destabilizing transition that a resignation would create, likely bringing the City’s business to a grinding halt. Council action against me would similarly prevent the City’s business from continuing, only so I can again show these allegations from 30 years remain false.”
Harrell, Bagshaw, Herbold and Juarez also issued a joint statement this afternoon:
“Allegations of abuse must be taken seriously at all times. Despite serious allegations that Mayor Ed Murray committed acts of misconduct, there have been no judicial findings or conclusions that he committed an offense or willfully violated any laws. The Mayor is entitled to due process and legal counsel.
“Although the City Council may act as a court of impeachment, our powers to do so are limited by our City Charter. Article V, Section 10 of the City Charter regarding ‘Removal of Mayor’ states: ‘The Mayor may be removed from office after a hearing, for any willful violation of duty, or for the commission of an offense involving moral turpitude, upon written notice from the City Council at least five days before the hearing. He or she shall have the right to be present, to the aid of counsel, to offer evidence and to be heard in his or her own behalf. Upon the affirmative vote of two-thirds of all the members of the City Council, acting as a court of impeachment, the office shall become vacant.’
“As we speak today, there has been no proof that he has “willfully violated” his duties. The Mayor has directed staff in the necessary transitions this fall to a new mayoral administration and these are necessary steps for a successful transition.
“Today, we have received calls and emails from survivors of sexual assault who are reliving their own experiences. Many are coming forward to add their voice to the discussion. We are listening to their voices; each of us knows survivors and we underscore our concerns for each person. The Council will continue to support survivors, advocates, and those agencies that provide critical support to survivors and their families.
“Allowing due process to proceed before the courts or other competent tribunal does not lessen our compassion and understanding of victims who have been assaulted. These crimes are unspeakable and require the utmost attention from our legal and social service system no matter how long ago they might have occurred. Collectively, we appeal to the Mayor to stop referring to the criminal background of his accusers. This re-traumatizes survivors and hinders the City’s efforts to enact policy to assist people who have criminal backgrounds.
“Our primary focus will be to assure that the City’s best interests are being served and we have an effective transition in mayoral administrations.”