The University of Washington agreed to pay $ 97,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by The Seattle Times, which alleged the university did not provide public records requested by the reporter about testing student athletes for coronavirus.
Reporter Mike Reicher solicited emails from the head of sports medicine at UW last year to learn more about Pac-12’s decision to partner with a rapid coronavirus test maker.
UW said it did not find any response entries. But the Times received emails, which included emails from a UW official from another Pac-12 university, and provided them to UW to show that his search was inadequate.
The Times, represented by attorney Catherine George, filed a lawsuit in January. The document claims that the university’s response violated the state’s Public Records Act, which applies to government agencies such as UW.
UW denies that it withheld the tapes and says it was “oversight” in the original search. In a settlement reached this month, UW did not admit responsibility but said it is taking steps to improve its response to registration requests.
“The University of Washington is committed to the principles of transparency and responsiveness with respect to public records,” said University spokesman Victor Balta. “We are delighted that this problem has been resolved and we continue to take our responsibility to society as a government institution very seriously.”
During the mediation process, UW stated that it recently created an online records portal that allows online payments and access to records, and that it received funding to recruit two or three new records staff. As part of the settlement, the university also agreed to be considerate of suggestions and regularly meet with The Seattle Times to discuss issues.
Seattle Times executive editor Michelle Matassa Flores said she looked forward to working with the university on reforms.
“This case was important to The Times because much of the university’s work has a direct impact on people,” said Matassa Flores. “Whether it’s COVID precautions for student athletes or other key decisions, UW needs to be open and transparent.”
The state does not enforce the law on public records holding agencies accountable for violations, but allows requesters to sue and demand financial penalties if they believe the law is being violated.
Pac-12’s partnership with test maker Quidel ultimately cost UW more than $ 500,000. And this came after internal debate and warnings about the accuracy of the test, which were revealed in a report by The Seattle Times.
Following the announcement of the deal, Reicher requested emails sent or received by Dr. Kim Harmon of UW, who is also a member of the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee. He requested emails that mentioned Quidel within a 12-day period around the time the deal was announced.
Balta, a university spokesman, said there were “no attempts to deny access” to the records. He previously told The Times that the university did a “smart search” for the messages and did not find them.
Reicher challenged the response, stating it was “against common sense” that there would be no related entries as the UW official was publicly involved in the partnership. The university dismissed the appeal, recalling that no records were found.
But emails received by The Times from Oregon State University revealed that Harmon was engaged in electronic discussions about Quidel.
The Seattle Times sued UW, claiming that it could find and provide the recordings, but did not conduct an adequate search.
After the trial, the university looked again and found about 63 pages of response reports, which it submitted to the newspaper.
Among the entries were an email from UW President Ana Marie Coes expressing concern that Pac-12 universities could be “tricked” by Qwidel, as well as an email in which Harmon said she did not want to give the impression that they would viewed as “the use of our athletes as guinea pigs.”
According to George, UW found about a dozen more pages after The Times said it believed other entries were missing.
Quidel’s rapid tests allowed Pac-12 to play a shortened 2020 football season, with UW being forced to cancel three games. Under Pak-12, nearly one in five high-contact sports athletes tested positive for the virus, and the conference faced two outbreaks.