CORRECTION: The original version of this post said that MSNBC acquired Alaska state e-mails related to Todd Palin. It was msnbc.com.
After a long public records fight, msnbc.com finally got the goods on Todd Palin’s role in the Alaska state government when his wife was governor. About 3,000 pages of e-mails just released show that Todd was more than a sounding board. He regularly got deeply involved in state official business, participating in matters such as a judicial appointment and contract negotiations with state employees. Todd was so involved, in fact, that the state withheld 243 e-mails on the grounds that, according to msnbc.com, “executive privilege extends to Todd Palin as an unpaid adviser to the government.” The e-mails reveal quite a bit about Sarah Palin as well, including how she wanted her staff to handle installation of a tanning bed in the governor’s mansion and how she could get the state to foot the bill for her family’s air travel.
Much of what’s contained within the e-mails is not completely new information, but the correspondence is still worth perusing if only to check out Sarah Palin the governor in her own often Blackberry-generated words.
Also, kudos to msnbc.com and the other news organizations that kept fighting to get these e-mails released. These documents may serve mostly as juicy tidbits for Sarah Palin critics, while other successful public records request have had far more impact. (Here, for example.) But every time journalists or citizens get documents under the power of the Freedom of Information Act, there’s a tiny ripple effect that backs up the public’s right to know. Getting information this way is usually a long, arduous and incredibly frustrating experience. It’s very tempting to give up; public officials often give insane reasons why they can’t provide information. (In this case, the state of Alaska initially said it would cost $15 million to retrieve these e-mails, for instance.) Here’s msnbc.com’s complete “backstory” on the e-mail release:
When msnbc.com, other news organizations and citizens of Alaska sought Palin e-mail records after she was named the Republican vice presidential running mate in August 2008, the state initially quoted a cost as high as $15 million for state technicians to find the e-mails, for state interns to print out the e-mails one at a time, for state lawyers to read them to determine what information could be withheld, and for a print shop to photocopy them.
That’s still the laborious approach the state has taken, at what it says is a cost of more than $500,000 in staff time, but the prices it is charging have come down considerably. The state charged msnbc.com only $323.58 for the records released this week.
State officials said they could not figure out how to electronically search or distribute the e-mails. But such work is the bread and butter of firms like Crivella West, a Pittsburgh company which offered to do that work for the state for free. After the state ignored its offer, msnbc.com contacted the company, which agreed to scan in the photocopies to turn them back into searchable text, and to set up the documents in a public archive.
State law specifies that staff should respond to public records requests within 10 days, but it took Alaska much longer than that to produce the e-mails: The original request for these new e-mails was made in September 2008 by Aram Roston, an investigative producer for NBC News. He left NBC at the end of that year, and Palin left the governor’s post the next July, but the request ground on without them.
A broader request by msnbc.com and other news organizations for all e-mails sent and received by the governor and about 50 top officials — about 25,000 in all — is still pending. Last week, Sarah Palin’s former staff, now working for Gov. Sean Parnell, requested additional time, as required by the public records law, to respond.
Disclosure of private e-mails from government officials has been a legal issue in many states. For example, this week in North Carolina, news organizations are pursing a lawsuit to see the e-mails of the former Democratic governor, Mike Easley, who used a private, secret e-mail account to conduct state business.
State courts usually rule that correspondence between government officials, about government business, are public records, whether they use their government e-mail accounts or private ones.
In a second Palin case filed by McLeod, the Alaska resident seeking access to her e-mails, a state judge in Alaska ruled last month that it’s not necessarily a violation of the public records law for public officials to use personal e-mail accounts. Those e-mails may be public records, but only if the state agency decides to preserve them. The state has indeed preserved thousands of such records, and someday we’ll expect to see more of them from the Palin administration.