Democrats question delay in retrieving e-mails

PALIN PUBLIC RECORDS: State says it's foundering under numerous requests.

January 30, 2009 

The Alaska Democratic Party says the state's repeated delays in providing public records it has asked for involving Gov. Sarah Palin are "excessive and unwarranted."

The state notified the Democrats earlier this week that it would likely need until the end of March if not longer to provide records first requested more than four months ago, on Sept. 22, during the heat of the presidential campaign when Palin was the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate.

In the request, Alaska Democratic Party chairwoman Patti Higgins sought Palin's schedules and calendars between Jan. 1, 2007, and Sept. 15, 2008. The Democrats also sought various categories of e-mails for about the same time period, including:

• All those between Palin and state Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, or between Palin and state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, with the words "abortion" or "AGIA," which is short for the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act;

• All e-mails from Palin containing the following words: babysitter, childcare, McCain, Obama, Democrat, Huckabee, Wal-Mart, Eskimo, Natives, Kuwait, passport, Ruedrich, or Kopp;

• All e-mails between Palin and her husband, Todd, with any of the following words: vote, veto, budget, oil, Monegan, or Wooten; and

• All e-mails between Palin and her sister, Molly McCann, with the words Wooten or Monegan.

Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten is McCann's ex-husband and the trooper at the center of the infamous Troopergate controversy. The other names refer to former Public Safety commissioners Walt Monegan and Charles Kopp, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, then-candidate and now President Obama, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich.

Kay Brown, Democratic Party communications director, said the party's request is straightforward and shouldn't be lumped in with other, bigger requests.

"These repeated delays are excessive and unwarranted. There is obvious obfuscation going on here. Sarah Palin is proving herself to be anti-transparent about her own communications and activities," Higgins said in a written statement.

State officials say they are just trying to be efficient as they respond to 17 public records requests, all of them involving e-mails, pending in the governor's office.

"I can understand why they are frustrated because we are too. We would really like to be able to handle these more quickly," said Dave Jones, an assistant attorney general with expertise in public records.

He said he's heard estimates that the requests may cover 50,000 e-mails, and each one must be reviewed by a state attorney to see if the information should be withheld for reasons such as executive privilege.

"We're trying to examine each message in the group only once," Jones said.

That means smaller requests for selected Palin e-mails are caught up in the bigger requests, which include those e-mails and more, he said.

The process was complicated by the fact that Palin used a private Yahoo account for much state business. Technicians had to sift through e-mail accounts of 51 employees, including Cabinet members, executive staff and close aides, to look for e-mails from or to Palin.

State lawyers tried to use newly acquired software to number and redact the records electronically. But even with the help of technical staff, they couldn't convert the records to a portable document format without opening each message individually, Jones said.

Now they're just trying to print out the records in a big batch, but even that has run into technical difficulty, Jones said. Once the records are ready to review, probably in a couple of weeks, several lawyers will work to figure out which ones are public, he said.

On Wednesday Jones notified Linda Perez, Palin's administrative director, of the problems. "Unfortunately, we have made little progress," Jones wrote.

Perez then asked Attorney General Talis Colberg to extend the deadline to provide the records.

Higgins e-mailed Colberg on Friday that the Democratic Party objected to any further delay.

Public records in Alaska are generally supposed to be provided within 10 days, but the deadline can be extended for more complicated requests.

"I wish we were able to give them what they want more quickly," Jones said. "But because these are such broad requests, and we received so many of them at one time, and because we are discovering some of the practical difficulties in dealing with large requests, we really haven't been able to do what we would like to do in terms of being responsive."


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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