C is for Vengeance: A blogger and politician team up to punish critics

December 21, 2016

Have you ever written an angry letter or e-mail to a government official? Most of us have at one time or other. God knows I have. But did you ever think, when you dropped that letter in the mailbox (or hit the SEND button) that the person you were writing it to would hand it over to someone who would use it to threaten you? Well, that’s what happened to north Seattle resident Jennifer Aspelund. On December 13, Aspelund sent this two-page e-mail to the Seattle City Council (press the PAGE DOWN button at the bottom to see second page):

Jennifer_Aspelund_E-mail_to_City_Council_12.13.16

In her e-mail,  Aspelund is referring to a movement by some councilmembers to kill plans for a new police precinct building in the north end of Seattle, where Aspelund lives. Aspelund is angry because, according to her, City Hall is wasting money on non-essential projects and not doing enough to curb the street crime that’s been on the increase in her neighborhood. She feels that the Council is isolated in their “glass palace,” that they waste money and appoint bureaucrats to useless committees while the police department goes begging. Aspelund isn’t the only north-ender who feels that way, either. A number of neighborhood groups have formed around public safety issues in the last year, and Aspelund is a member of one of them. (I first met her in November, in connection with a story I was doing for the Blog Quixotic.)

The Girl Next Door

Aspelund’s is an outspoken government critic and has testified before the City Council in terms similar to the ones she uses in her e-mail. She has also been active – along with her neighbors – on the Nextdoor neighborhood blog site. And in that connection she came to the attention of one Erica C. Barnett. Barnett runs a local social justice-themed blog and has been critical both of the Nextdoor model and of the opinions expressed by many Nextdoor users, like Aspelund, who support the police and oppose the expansion of homeless camps and drug-injection sites.

Tweeting Head: Barnett strikes a characteristic pose for a Seattle Times article last March.

Last February, Barnett and several Nextdoor users were involved in a public feud over the issue of Barnett posting Nextdoor user comments on her blog, along with the commenters’ names and Barnett’s critical commentary. The users had believed their comments would be privileged to their own neighbors when they made them, since Nextdoor’s terms of service (TOS) – which Barnett had accepted – forbade copying of user comments outside the Nextdoor “neighborhood.”

For her part, Barnett felt that Nextdoor’s TOS was out of line, since the Seattle Police Department had been using Nextdoor as a conduit for discussions with neighbors. Barnett argued, with justification, that shielding those discussions from public view defeated the open government principle by which the police and other officials are supposed to abide. Barnett did not seek permission from the Nextdoor neighbors before posting their remarks on her blog, however. Nor did she give them any warning, or any notice afterward. In most cases, they found out after the fact, when someone told them that something they had said the night before on Nextdoor (thinking it would be private) was now splashed over Barnett’s blog, with Barnett saying, in effect: See how nasty these Nextdoor people are? They’re rich. They’re White. They hate homeless people. –And so on. (See the Seattle Times story here.)

In any place outside social justice land, Barnett would be ignored as a minor eccentric. In Seattle, however, she gets some traction. She’s a regular on the talk show scene and is a fixture at City Hall meetings, where she can often be seen tweeting color commentary like a sportscaster at a ball game. Over the years, she has cultivated close relations with various government officials. She is particularly close to Lisa Herbold, the Councilmember who was first on the “To” list in Aspelund’s e-mail. So this was the political situation prevailing when Ms. Aspelund penned her missive to the City Council: Aspelund is a known critic of both City Hall and Barnett. Meanwhile, Barnett and Councilmember Herbold are chummy with each other. And they both have reason to dislike Aspelund.

Betrayal

On the afternoon of December 13, just hours after Aspelund sent her e-mail to Herbold and the others, it appeared on Barnett’s C is for Crank blog, in redacted form. In her post (which you can read here), Barnett complains about unspecified persons who are allegedly harassing her by doing public disclosure requests (PDRs) on her correspondence with the City, contacting her associates in the media, and so on. As a parting shot, Barnett has Aspelund’s e-mail to the City Council, along with a gratuitous dig at Nextdoor and an admonition that “public disclosure law applies to everyone.”

I’ve been living my life online for a long time, and I’ve been the subject of online abuse for just as long. But I have seen a shift recently, not in the level of anger, personal vitriol, and gendered name-calling (the very name of this blog is in part a response to people’s incredibly clever comments about knowing what my middle initial stands for) but in the prevalence of conspiracy theories, as if the city, journalists, and advocates (especially homeless advocates) were somehow colluding to destroy Seattle to make themselves rich at everybody else’s expense. You see this on Nextdoor, certainly. But you also see it in emails to council members—like the one below, which was sent to all nine council members by one of the women who filed records requests for my emails. Which reminds me of another pro tip: Public disclosure law applies to everyone. –Erica C. Barnett

Barnett’s final words were a one-two punch. The first punch was a general warning to anyone who might be thinking of crossing her. (See? This is what I can do to you!) The second punch was directed against one person who actually did cross her: Aspelund. Only three people would have known for sure whom that second punch was being thrown at. One of course was Barnett. One was Aspelund. And one was Councilmember Lisa Herbold. But Aspelund didn’t know the Herbold link at the time; she had to piece that part of the story together for herself.

Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold. (Image: Seattle Channel)

Aspelund follows Barnett’s blog, and when she saw her letter there, she naturally wondered how Barnett had gotten her hands on it. So she fired off another e-mail to the Council: Did one of you give my e-mail to Erica Barnett? –No reply. She then contacted the City’s Public Records Office with a priority request, asking for a record of where her e-mail went after it landed at City Hall. She was given a record showing that exactly one hour after her e-mail arrived at City Hall, Herbold forwarded it on to Barnett. Aspelund gave me that e-mail forward the next day. Here it is:

Incriminating evidence: Click to enlarge

This was clearly a breach of trust on Herbold’s part, but it goes beyond that. The inescapable conclusion is that Herbold and Barnett were working as a team. It’s interesting that Herbold didn’t include any commentary when she forwarded this to Barnett. Not a single word. Possibly, she was worried about incriminating herself – though, if that’s the case, she obviously wasn’t worried enough. Another possibility is that Herbold didn’t feel she needed to tell Barnett what to do with Aspelund’s e-mail, given that Barnett has a habit of publishing other people’s correspondence. My hunch is that Herbold did give Barnett some suggestions here. Just not in the e-mail itself.

It would be useful to know whether Barnett solicited the e-mail or whether Herbold forwarded it on her own initiative. Perhaps it was a combination. Perhaps Barnett had an understanding with Herbold whereby Herbold would pass on to Barnett anything Barnett might be able to use to hurt her critics. Or Herbold’s. We may never know. I asked both Barnett and Herbold to comment for this story. Herbold didn’t respond at all. Barnett said only: “Your hunt for conspiracies at City Hall is weird and off base.”

An ethical lapse? Or a habit?

The important thing here is not whether Barnett is the perpetrator (or subject) of some conspiracy; it’s that CM Lisa Herbold violated the public trust by forwarding a constituent’s e-mail to a third party without first asking permission. Or notifying the constituent. Or apologizing to the constituent after the fact. It’s inexcusable.

Could Herbold plausibly claim ignorance in this case? Could she say that she didn’t know how Barnett would use Aspelund’s e-mail? No. Given that Herbold is on close terms with Barnett, and given that she knows what kinds of pieces Barnett writes, it’s as sure as the rain in Seattle that Herbold handed that e-mail over to Barnett knowing exactly what Barnett would do with it. Based on how she handled Aspelund’s e-mail, it’s a reasonable inference that Herbold has passed other constituent correspondence on to Barnett as well. And will do it again. And why not? – when it’s such an easy way to get even with a problem constituent like Jennifer Aspelund. Need to do a hatchet job on a critic? Don’t risk getting bloodstains all over your dress. Send your blogger pal to do the dirty work.

I asked Aspelund if she saw the City Council in a different light as a result of this incident. “Absolutely,” she replied. “I don’t trust them anymore.”

Who would?

–By David Preston, with assistance from the Safe Seattle research team.

Cover photo of Erica C. Barnett: Geekwire
This entry was posted in Crime, General, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to C is for Vengeance: A blogger and politician team up to punish critics

  1. C is for Cookie, It's Good Enough For Me says:

    Erica’s shenanigans and personal vendettas have long been noted yet the local politicos still suck up to her for some reason.

    The rules just don’t seem to apply to her because, like, the patriarchy and stuff: http://soundpolitics.com/archives/012777.html

  2. Cathy says:

    Anyone who sends an email to any government official is crazy to think it will be kept private. It does become part of the public record, and the language that was used in the email is pertinent, and abusive. I think it’s fine that Herbold sent it.

  3. DBP says:

    Would you want someone doing that to you, Cathy? Yes, the e-mail is part of the public record. As such, it’s available for whoever comes looking for it. It’s doubtful that Barnett came looking for it, though. What’s more likely is that Herbold voluntarily gave it to her. And when Aspelund asked her: Did you give my e-mail to Barnett? –she didn’t answer. That was deceitful.

  4. Alex says:

    Using a citizen’s correspondence for vindictive or political purposes is a LOT different than “not keeping it private,” Cathy.

    Catch a clue.

  5. J B says:

    Looks like an ethical lapse on Councilmember Herbold’s part.

  6. Legit H says:

    Erica has long been a political operative pretending to be a journalist/pundit.

    She’d like to claim progressiveness, but she’s a corporate/neo-liberal practicing pay-for-play journalism through her Patreon account: https://www.patreon.com/ericacbarnett

    You want Erica to do a hit job on someone, just kindly donate to her “Erica is creating journalism” plea for your money. She’ll deliver.

    We all know she won’t be getting another gig through legitimate and credible media establishments like The Atlantic… for whom she fabricated parts of her story to suit her narrative. She’s shady as they get and she’s cranky enough to get even shadier if the price is right.

  7. Full Disclosure says:

    The text on Erica Barnett’s Patreon account says: ” The C Is for Crank aims to elevate the discussion.” Those discussions must have started pretty low to begin with since her “journalism” never seems to make it out of the gutter.

    It would be curious too to find out which developers (and politicians) contribute to her financially on that site, since she’s certainly writing the developer’s copy for them. Erica, since your site says that you “bring you [us] behind the scenes to places no one else will take you, to get the story behind the story, ” that would be a story worth knowing–and only you could tell it. Whaddya say you let us see who your major contributors are?

  8. Patricia Carroll-Crippen says:

    I have been in enough public meetings with EB present and have later read her twisted progressive rants and distortions. She has never approached “the other-side” for their story. The sad news is that Lisa H sent the personal letter off to her.
    She was one council person I had some hope for giving the average Seattleite a chance
    at being heard. Our council is beholden to big money at every level.
    So many parallels to Trump voters who support the folks who will most screw them over in the long run. I do believe Seattle and it’s boom will bust, and that is the only thing that will keep the city from continuing to destroy neighborhood uniqueness, overbuilding and hopefully humble some politicians.

  9. Toby Thaler says:

    Patricia, calling Erica Barnett’s rants and distortions “news” and public backstabbing of people she disagrees with “progressive” is a perversion of both words. Being a strong advocate for feminism does not make up for her ignorance, dissembling, and dishonesty on local political economics and land use.

  10. J Anders says:

    Erica C. Barnett is a front runner for the Anti-Edward R Murrow awards. Congratulations, Erica!

  11. Stella says:

    You lost me when you went on about “possibly this and hunches”. Not good journalism. Write more when you actually have facts not hunches and possibilities. Your words below:

    “Possibly, she was worried about incriminating herself – though, if that’s the case, she obviously wasn’t worried enough. Another possibility is that Herbold didn’t feel she needed to tell Barnett what to do with Aspelund’s e-mail, given that Barnett has a habit of publishing other people’s correspondence. My hunch is that Herbold did give Barnett some suggestions here. Just not in the e-mail itself.”

    Facts, not hunches!

    I agree with Cathy and J Anders.

    I

  12. DBP says:

    Stella, an investigative journalist is different from a news reporter. A reporter’s job is to list facts. A journalist’s job is to present facts and explain the various conclusions that might be drawn from those facts. Think of this piece as a trial where Herbold and Barnett are the accused. Based on the evidence, we know they have both committed ethical violations, but Herbold’s violation is far worse, and it’s the only one that matters, since she’s a public servant and can be held to account for her actions.

    Neither Barnett nor Herbold have taken the stand on their own behalf, so that leaves the matter open to some interpretation. A reasonable one would be that Herbold had a prior agreement with Barnett to send her damaging info on Ms. Aspelund (or anyone else who was in Barnett’s crosshairs). That’s what most people would assume based on Herbold forwarding Aspelund’s e-mail without any comment.

  13. R says:

    @Stella

    David’s writing and journalism is packed with facts. You have a cowardly councilwoman who provided a known thief and liar with material for her blog,which is nothing more than voter suppression masked as “journalism.”

    Herbold failed to do her job. A critical component of her job is to respond to each and every query from Seattle Voters . Even the ones she doesn’t like. Cops and Firefighters serve many of those with whom I’m sure they personally disagree with or flat out don’t like. But they do it anyways. Lisa should be no different.

    If those at the bottom of the municipal chain of command are held accountable for their poor decisions and unprofessional actions so should those at the top .

    If this is how Lisa treats dissenters , I’m glad she isn’t a cop or a firefighter.

    Additionally, if you think that Herbold or any other politician is going to come out right and say she used a proxy to attack and shame a Seattle voter you have a lot of growing up to do.

    Keep up the great work David.

  14. Data Driven says:

    I am not sure that an ethical lapse took place here, or that one can have an expectation of privacy with an email sent to another person. And Jennifer to a degree loses me with her liberal use of profanity and threats should something happen to her family. I get where she is coming from but she needs to understand that this approach on her part does not impress. What I hope for and expect is that citizens engaged in challenging the toxic governance of this city aspire and communicate at a higher level, stick to many of the compelling facts and take the high ground.

    That said, my bigger concern is that we have a council where there is an apparent tight relationship between people like Barnett and Herbold such that nothing need be said and that Herbold knows that Jennifer has her back. She did not send her screed to David for some unknown reason.

    I am a grown man but suddenly feel like I am having a junior high (middle school for the more modern) moment when faced with this sort of stuff.

  15. DBP says:

    Thanks, R. As people are read this, I hope they’ll ask, How would I feel if someone did this to me? I hope Ms. Herbold is asking herself the same question.

  16. Delia says:

    A document being made publicly available through the proper channels is one thing. A council member forwarding an email to a known vindictive bulldog and personal friend – going around the public disclosure officer and process – is quite another and is completely unethical.

  17. Nick says:

    Horrible. The liberal and ‘progressive’ mindset has pervaded the city government like a cancer. And people like Erica are a symptom of that. We need a reset of the city council and mayor (especially) much like we achieved at the federal level. But it will be more difficult here. The liberals are so entrenched… But keep fighting and voting!

  18. Captain Electron says:

    Since I recently became WA resident by choice (and because there is no state income tax here,) I see my life in Alaska where I thought politics were horrible, was actually a rather charmed life. WA politicians are a new low.

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