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Quest for Palin e-mails may exceed her time in office

By Bill Dedman

You can do the math.

Alaska state regulations require public officials to make public records available to the public within 10 days in most cases.

On Monday evening, Sarah Palin's former staff in the Alaska governor's office requested another delay in making public 25,000 e-mails exchanged by Palin, her husband and her senior aides.

The governor's office is asking the state's attorney general to approve a delay of five more months, until May 30, 2011.

At that point, the request filed by msnbc.com and other news organizations will have been pending for 986 days.

Sarah Palin was governor of Alaska for 966 days.

In other words, if the delay is granted, the wait for the e-mails will have lasted longer than the Palin administration.

News organizations, including NBC News, msnbc.com and the Associated Press, requested the e-mails in 2008 after the relatively unknown Palin was chosen as Republican Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential candidate.

We're told that there are about 25,700 e-mails, with an unknown number of pages. That's not exactly what any of the news organizations asked for, as explained below, but it's what the governor's office says it will consider releasing.

They include these e-mails: anything sent to or from the governor or her husband, Todd Palin (either from their government or private Yahoo accounts) to the government accounts of 53 people: the governor, her husband, and 51 key state employees, including current and former top aides, gas pipeline commission members and members of her Cabinet.

The state says it plans to release some, and withhold some, of the e-mails it has collected, following the exemptions allowed in the public records law.

The state regulations allow the attorney general to approve a delay if fulfilling a public records request would substantially impair the functioning of the office. Monday's request for a delay is the 15th sent by the governor's administrative director, Linda J. Perez, to the attorney general.

Well, actually three attorneys general. John J. Burns, who started work last week, is the third attorney general to receive these requests. Each was appointed by Palin or her former running mate.

Not all the requestors are still around either. At least two of the journalists who requested the e-mails, from NBC News and the Juneau Empire, are no longer working for the same news organizations.

And after two years, seven months and 23 days in office, Palin moved on to become a lecturer, best-selling author, travelogue host, political commentator and potential candidate for president in 2012.

Yet the request for her public records lives on.

How it works
Last month, the outgoing attorney general, Daniel S. Sullivan, insisted that the governor's office come up with a "firm work plan."

On Monday, also known as Day 832, administrator Perez disclosed her plan. She wrote that she understands that the Law Department "intends to remove all other duties from one assistant attorney general and to contract with a former assistant attorney general, so that both will devote their full-time working hours to reviewing these records." She estimates this cost at $120,000, on top of a $450,000 estimate given for earlier work.

So far, after more than two years, less than one-third of the documents have been reviewed, Perez said.

Here's the process -- and the problems that have caused the delays in producing the e-mails:

  • The state said it could not produce an electronic copy of the e-mails, despite the state law requiring just that.
  • An offer from a legal services company, to convert all the e-mails to a secure electronic archive at no cost, was ignored.
  • The state law department acquired software to work with electronic e-mails, but couldn't figure out how to get the e-mails into it.
  • The e-mails were printed out by state interns. 
  • State legal staff continue to go over the e-mails, deciding what to withhold under exemptions in the state public records act.
  • Those decisions will then be reviewed by the governor's office. The governor, Sean Parnell, was Sarah Palin's running mate in 2006.
  • The printouts, with some material blacked out, will be photocopied and shipped to the news organizations.
  • The news organizations will scan in the records, restoring them to electronic form in a searchable database online. At that point, the residents of Alaska will be able to read their own public records.

How we got here
In August and September 2008, news organizations did what they do whenever a new figure bursts onto the national political stage. They began to scour the public records of the candidate's family and school background, government and military service, writings, finances, etc. You've seen this process at work for generations, from Thomas Eagleton's prescriptions to Hillary Clinton's land investments to Mitt Romney's illegal alien gardeners to Barack Obama's aunt's immigration status.

Interest in Palin's e-mails was sparked by reports that the governor and her aides were using private Yahoo accounts, apparently to keep those records from being accessed under the Alaska Public Records Act. One could argue that they were attempting to follow a separate law, which requires that government resources not be used for political activity. (Palin was involved in booting a Republican off the state oil and gas commission for just that violation.) That argument would hold more water if not for the fact that many of the Yahoo e-mails were about government business. We know that from the logs released by the hacker who broke into Palin's Yahoo account; he was sentenced to a year in custody.

The fate of Palin's private Yahoo messages will be settled in court. A lawsuit against the governor's office was filed by Andrée McLeod, an Alaska Republican, arguing that the Yahoo messages are public if they deal with government business. "Palin promised transparency, and didn't deliver it," McLeod said Monday. She lost at the trial level, but the case is now before the Alaska Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments Jan. 11-14 in Anchorage. You can read her appellate brief here.

Hoping to see at least half of the government business conducted on the Yahoo accounts, msnbc.com requested on Sept. 17, 2008, all e-mails sent and received on government accounts by Palin, her husband (who had a government account and Blackberry smartphone) and other senior aides. Other journalists and citizens made similar overlapping requests.

You may recall that the Palin administration's first estimate of the cost of providing the governor's e-mails was $15 million, the figure it quoted the Associated Press. The state's IT staff said it would charge $960.31 per e-mail account for its staff time to search for any mail sent from the private Yahoo accounts, plus photocopying costs. After adverse publicity, the governor's office backed down, agreeing to charge only copying costs.

The state then set about the task of gathering the e-mails. Instead of gathering and providing each requestor with the records it was seeking, the governor's office in effect created its own request, pouring into a single bucket all the e-mails among Palin and about 50 officials, including Cabinet members. From that bucket, it has been doling out the records, helping first those who sought the least.

To cut our individual costs, msnbc.com and Mother Jones magazine joined together, asking for the entire bucket. Pro Publica, the nonprofit news organization, has agreed to go in with us, share and share alike. These three organizations plan to put the searchable archive online.

That's what we did with a smaller cache of 3,000 pages of e-mails sent and received by Todd Palin. Aram Roston of NBC News requested those records in 2008. When they were made available in January 2010, he was no longer with NBC, so msnbc.com paid the bill and put them online, with the help of a legal services company, Crivella West, which made the earlier offer to do the work for free for the state.

Previous coverage on msnbc.com:

Want Palin's e-mails? That'll be $15 million

Yes, we're still waiting to read Palin's e-mails

Search the archive of Todd Palin e-mails

Palin e-mails reveal a powerful 'first dude'

Palin lawyer responds to msnbc.com story

Other coverage:

David Corn, Mother Jones: The long wait for Sarah Palin's e-mails.

Corn describes the process to date, and notes what is going to be missing from these records: "Remember, this does not include every business-related e-mail sent to or from Palin's private accounts; the state's search only covered those e-mails Palin exchanged with the official accounts of Alaskan officials. If she had used one of her private accounts to e-mail a private citizen — say a business leader or a party figure — about state business, or to e-mail the private account of an aide, that correspondence would not be collected via this search."

Mark Tapscott, commentator, The Washington Examiner: If Sarah Palin's e-mail is fair game for FOIA, why not for Reid, Pelosi, etc.?

As Tapscott rightly points out, members of Congress, such as former Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, have exempted their e-mails and other records from the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Tapscott, formerly of the conservative Heritage Foundation, disparages all the requestors of Palin's records as "a group of liberal and left-wing journalists."

Most journalists are liberals, Tapscott explained in an e-mail, so the journalists who requested the records of Sarah Palin must have been liberals, too.

When msnbc.com and NBC News devoted resources last year to covering the Obama administration's reluctance to release all of its visitor logs, or this year to Harry Reid's efforts on behalf of online poker and Chinese-owned wind farms, Tapscott did not complain that we must be conservative and right-wing journalists, nor did he ask why we had not sought similar records from President George W. Bush and Sen. Mitch McConnell.