King County prosecutors will not pursue charges against Joy Langley — a former Mercer Island council contender who allegedly lied to voters about an Ivy League degree.
A Sept. 27 email from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office states, “The Prosecuting Attorney’s office declined to file charges as this would not be a prudent use of scarce judicial resources.”
The reasoning for this decision was further elaborated on in an Oct. 7 decline memo from the KCPAO.
“… following interactions with Ms. [Langley’s] attorney and others, it was decided that prosecution for this misdemeanor was an unneeded use of scarce judicial and prosecutorial resources, in part, but not solely, due to media exposure of the alleged false claim and Ms. [Langley’s] electoral defeat,” the document reads.
Langley did not respond with comment in time to meet the Reporter’s deadline.
And as one candidate’s saga of alleged deceit is put to rest, other accusations have sprung up on the Eastside.
How the investigation transpired
Langley was hoping to win the voters’ favor in 2017. Hoisting herself on a campaign based on transparency, Langley outlined her qualifications in her city council candidate biography.
She listed a flurry of positions including one on the Mercer Island Arts Council and endorsements from former mayors Fred Jarrett, Bruce Bassett and current mayor Debbie Bertlin.
It was the degree from Cornell that really got people fired up.
Langley said in both writing and verbally that she attended the Ivy League research university based in Ithaca, New York, and that she received a philosophy degree in May 2004. A screenshot of the diploma was visible on her election website.
Allan Lippert was weary of anything he heard from Langley. He was already in favor of Tom Acker, a longtime city resident running against Langley at the time. When he learned of her degree from Cornell, being an alumnus of the college, he was intrigued.
“I thought, ‘Let me look her up on the alumni page’ and I did,” Lippert said in September 2019. He discovered that Langley was on the website, but curiously, it listed no degree. When he conducted the same search using his own name, the degree was there.
This led him to filing a report with the Mercer Island Police Department and he paid a visit to the Mercer Island Reporter, knowing the newspaper’s seven-person editorial board endorsed the candidate.
Lippert said he provided a copy of his and of his daughter’s diploma. She also attended Cornell.
In response to allegations, Langley produced a photo of her degree, a photo Lippert said he studied extensively. He compared the signatures on the degrees and the seals. “It just looked different,” he said.
Then came the metaphorical avalanche.
Mercer Island police turned the complaint over to Bellevue Police Department, to avoid any potential perceived political bias by the Island’s department, a probable cause report states. Documents related to the investigation state that Lippert contacted Cornell’s Alumni Association and the university associate counsel, in an attempt to verify if Langley did attend the school, as she continued to claim.
But there was no record of the former candidate ever attending or receiving a degree from the institution.
Langley again disputed the assertions that she never obtained a degree from Cornell, but when the university’s representatives asked for additional evidence, such as transcripts and names of dorm roommates, Langley failed to respond, investigation documents state.
Langley at some point told reporters that her records were sealed, after she became a victim of stalking. She wanted her personal information kept private and the college put a freeze on her records.
But Valerie Cross Dorn, associate university counsel, told detectives that “transcripts or student documentation could be sealed only under a court order.” Cross Dorn said Cornell would not seal transcripts for an individual request nor were such requests or court orders made.
(Cornell officials would not provide a new statement on the Langley investigation. Instead they said their previous statements will stand as the university’s comment on the issue.)
At some point the Reporter withdrew its endorsement and former councilman Dan Grausz retracted his support of Langley. The others endorsers never publicly withdrew their backing.
Speaking on the election fiasco years later, Acker criticized others who endorsed Langley and continued to do so.
“The real victim in this situation are voters who can’t trust the pamphlet or elected officials for making qualified endorsements,” Acker said.
Ultimately, Langley lost the race to Acker. But Bellevue police continued their investigation.
They were able to retrieve a photo of the degree in question using the website “Wayback Machine.” The site is an archive of old website screen captures. However, they were unable to verify, one way or another, if the diploma Langley claimed to have was in fact valid. And repeatedly, the university claimed to have no record of Langley.
Bellevue detectives found probable cause that Langley lied, and committed the crime of False Academic Credentials. They forwarded their findings to county prosecutors in May 2018. And more than a year later, prosecutor’s decided it would be best to let things go.
“If the voters pamphlet isn’t vetted and elected officials turn a blind eye to fraud or ethical misconduct, citizens and voters are the victims,” Acker said. “Mercer Island will be stuck with under qualified and unethical representatives.”
It’s been nearly two years since the Langley controversy first made headlines. Even still, accusations have arisen about other candidates lying, or at the very least, stretching their credentials in order to make themselves seem like a more qualified candidate for elected positions on the Eastside.
People have accused the mayor and current council contender Debbie Bertlin as fudging on her occupation line of her candidate biography by listing her former employer. Beside occupation it reads, “Strategy, Sales Leadership at Microsoft, Oracle (US, Asia, Africa, Europe).”
But there doesn’t seem to be any effort by the candidate to conceal her severed ties with the tech giant, or hide it from voters. On her LinkedIn profile it shows she no longer worked for the tech company as of Sept. 2017. And the city of Mercer Island website states “Most recently (Bertlin) was responsible for strategy and planning for Microsoft’s Enterprise and Partner organizations.”
“I am fortunate to have worked for great companies in my career and am proud to now be focusing on council and my family,” Bertlin said by email. “My professional experience includes 13 years at Microsoft and a Microsoft joint-venture, and a full work history is available on LinkedIn and elsewhere. I find this to be yet another unfortunate distraction from the real issues before our community.”
There are few guidelines on what can be written in a candidate’s biography space. According to the 2019 Candidate Manual, candidates are asked to refrain from profanity, not critique their opponents and italicize words for impact, rather than bolding or underlining the font.
The “occupation” line of a candidate’s bio is more or less open to interpretation. Whether this line is meant for solely current employment or to include former, is unclear.
“It’s up to the candidates how they use each given space,” said Halei Watkins, communications officer with King County Elections.
Watkins also pointed to language written both online with statements and in the printed voters’ pamphlets to make voters aware: “King County Elections does not correct punctuation, grammar, or fact check candidate and measure statements.”
In order to vet candidates running for election Watkins said the elections department would have to triple in size to accommodate such a request. This year there were nearly 700 candidates alone in King County.
“It would cost a lot of money to hire staff to vet and fact check every candidate statement,” she said. “That’s even if employers and educational institutions would even be willing to tell some random person who called their status.”
The Reporter attempted to do its own candidate vetting on Bertlin and her competitor Jake Jacobson. Microsoft refused to comply and provide information on Bertlin’s employment with the company. Joel Gunderson, with media relations, wrote in an email that he would be “unable to accommodate” the request. And it took nearly half a day to confirm that Jacobson is currently the executive vice president of the Osborne Construction Company, as it lists in his bio.
In order to evaluate candidates, Watkins recommends voters visit candidate forums and have conversations with community leaders, friends and neighbors on who they support and why.
“In as many ways folks can engage in their community around them, that’s the best way to suss out who’s going to earn your vote,” she said.
Looking back on the Langley campaign, former councilman Grausz said Langley did a lot of things in the community and that her stance on issues — particularly those concerning the environment and development — aligned with his. It’s why he endorsed her.
“I felt she would have made a great councilmember, but at the same time integrity is everything in politics,” Grausz said on retracting his support. “And if her integrity is called into question and there were not satisfactory answer to the concerns being raised, that sort of trumps the other stuff which is unfortunate.”
Grausz also attended Cornell but said that didn’t factor into his decision to revoke his support.
“A place like Mercer Island is going to have a fair number of East Coast schools represented … that’s life on the island,” Grausz said. “But you know, unfortunately, to other people [who were] really opposed to Joy, they went to Cornell and made it their personal crusade to go after her. If Joy misrepresented, the fault falls on her, but I felt bad. She’s a really good person.”
Editor’s note: The Reporter incorrectly stated the number of people on its editorial board. There were seven members.