Running for Re-election Virtually Unopposed, Ferguson’s Oso Scandal May Not Leave a Mark

His office was found liable in the destruction of documents that may have helped Oso victims prove their case against the state.

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s latest newsletter of legal wins and political initiatives arrived by email last week.

This edition of The Ferguson File recapped September, in which he called for a ban on the sale of assault weapons, secured free hygiene products for victims of domestic violence with a consumer fraud case settlement and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a sex trafficking suit against Backpage.com

But the compendium didn’t mention another pretty big story for his office — and maybe his political career — occupying the legal spotlight in September before concluding earlier this month.

It involved the systematic destruction of documents by the state’s expert witnesses ahead of a civil trial over the 2014 Oso mudslide. State attorneys knew about it and didn’t stop it.

On Oct. 4, a week before the trial’s scheduled start, King County Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff ruled the Attorney General’s Office would be sanctioned for the actions. In his order, he wrote the state “displayed a degree of institutional arrogance” and at least one of Ferguson’s crew encouraged the experts to destroy the emails.

Six days later, on the eve of opening arguments, lawyers for the state and plaintiffs — survivors and family members of the 43 people killed in the mudslide — settled with the state for $50 million.

Ferguson in September publicly took responsibility for the document destruction, and vowed to figure out how it occurred.

This case exposed one of the most egregious mistakes by the Attorney General’s Office and the settlement will rank as one of the highest payouts by the state.

Should Ferguson attempt to advance in his political career — he’s mentioned as a possible Democratic contender for governor in 2020 — it could cost him support with voters.

He’s on the ballot this year, too. He’s seeking re-election. This situation might have emerged as a campaign issue if Ferguson faced an aggressive well-funded Republican opponent like Reagan Dunn in 2012.

He’s not. He’s facing Arlington attorney Joshua Trumbull, a sincere, well-spoken yet vastly under capitalized candidate. Trumbull is making history as the first Libertarian running for a statewide office to get on a general election ballot since Washington switched to the top two primary in 2008.

Trumbull, born and raised in Snohomish, said what transpired in the Oso case exposed a need to shore up the ethical foundation of the Attorney General’s office. In mid-September, he told The Everett Herald’s Editorial Board that Ferguson should immediately sideline, if not fire, the attorneys who didn’t stop the deletion of emails from occurring. Ferguson didn’t.

And Trumbull said he knew of the survivors’ pain and disappointment because his Arlington office is in the same building where they came to give depositions in advance of the trial.

“People had faith in the system, They trusted the rules would be followed,” he said. “They’re crushed.”

Ferguson, in the same editorial board meeting, didn’t skirt the issue.

“It clearly was not right,” he said. “We know that. There will be a full accounting of what happened and why.”

Maybe the results will make it into next month’s Ferguson File.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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