Palin defends 'millions' ethics price claim

TALLY: Record requests, ethics complaints, lawsuits, troopergate given price tag.

July 8, 2009 

Gov. Sarah Palin, explaining her stunning resignation announcement, has repeatedly said attacks on her since she ran for vice president have cost state government "millions" of dollars.

"That huge waste that we have seen with the countless, countless hours that state staff is spending on these frivolous ethics violations and the millions of dollars that Alaskans are spending, that money not going to things that are very important, like troopers and roads and teachers and fish research," Palin said this week.

Palin administration officials provided the Daily News with a breakdown of what it says are $1.9 million in costs. Most if it is a per-hour accounting of the time state employees, such as state attorneys, have spent working on public records requests, lawsuits, ethics complaints, and issues surrounding the Legislature's "Troopergate" investigation last summer of Palin.

"Is it a check that we wrote, no, but is it staff hours, yes," Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Palin, said of the expenses related to state employee work.

Those state employees would have been paid regardless.

What about helping teachers, benefitting troopers, making roads safer or "soldiers' benefits" -- the kinds of alternative uses of the money that Palin has described repeatedly?

Asked about that, Leighow said staffers from multiple state agencies had to set aside their normal duties. State lawyers were also pulled off cases, she said.

"Important legal issues involving the state's interests were delayed in order to respond to these complaints. That means lost value to the state, which is measurable in dollars," she said. "There were also hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on equipment and outside legal counsel -- dollars that could have been used to benefit the state."

UNPRECEDENTED REQUESTS

The Palin administration has experienced a volume of information requests and public ethics complaints beyond those of any previous Alaska governor. Most came after Aug. 29 of last year, the day that John McCain chose Palin to be the Republican party's vice presidential nominee.

"I've never seen anything like this before. It's unprecedented," said Linda Perez, who handles the requests as Palin's administrative director and has been in state government since the Sheffield administration in the 1980s.

She said the Palin administration in its two and a half years has received 238 public records requests -- 189 of them coming since McCain chose her as his running mate last August. The previous governor, Frank Murkowski, had 109 in four years.

The public records requests to Palin are largely from members of the Alaska and national press, although some are from people who have filed ethics complaints against the governor. A large portion of the money Palin talks about as she explains reasons for her resignation is state employee time on public records requests.

The biggest chunk of that, more than $600,000, represents hours state lawyers spent reviewing requested information. They decide how much to release. Records can be withheld for reasons like an individual's privacy or for "deliberative process" -- an executive privilege generally limited to the governor and close advisers, covering internal deliberations before a decision is made.

CITIZEN WATCHDOGS

Anchorage activist Andree McLeod is suing in an attempt to obtain state e-mails sent to Palin's husband, Todd, who Palin critics have claimed is a "shadow governor." The e-mails have been withheld based on the claim of executive privilege, with the argument that Todd, while not a state employee, is an adviser to Palin. McLeod also filed a lawsuit meant to force the administration to abandon use of private e-mail accounts, like Yahoo messages, saying that can put state policy information off limits to public records requests.

"The high cost Palin keeps talking about is a function of Sarah Palin's refusal to secure, preserve and protect the state of Alaska's public records and (her circumvention of) state servers and public record laws," said McLeod, who said she offered to drop the suit over private accounts if Palin would ban them.

McLeod is one of the main people Palin is describing when she complains about what is going on. McLeod has had three ethics complaints against Palin dismissed and has another one pending, although an investigator did recommended ethics training for a close aide as a result of one of her complaints. She has filed numerous public records requests as well as the two lawsuits against the state. McLeod describes it as using the tools available for a citizen watchdog to hold the governor accountable. The state has charged some people thousands of dollars for e-mail requests dating from last fall's campaign that still haven't been filled. State officials say that they are big requests that require more time.

DIVERTED ATTENTION

The governor's office said that pulling state lawyers away from their work to deal with public records requests and ethics complaints has a cost. For example, Leighow said, the paralegal responsible for tracking down and billing "parties responsible for releases of toxic materials" wasn't able to devote enough time to do it because of time spent instead on public records issues.

"There is an estimated loss to the state this year of about $400,000, most of which the administration ultimately hopes to recover, though some will inevitably be lost in the delay," according to a breakdown sheet Leighow provided.

Other examples included state lawyers having to delay their work or pass it on to colleagues. A state attorney was apparently required to relinquish an Alaska Supreme Court oral argument on food-stamp repayment case to a colleague less familiar with the case in order to work on a series of public records requests directed at the governor's office. The state won the right to recoup the payments, although the court found issues with the notice provided to the plaintiffs.

THE TROOPERGATE COST

A large part of the Palin administration's $1.9 million cost breakdown is $560,800 for state personnel board work on ethics complaints. But the board itself recently gave a much smaller figure -- $300,000 -- for hiring outside investigators for the complaints, nearly all of which have been dismissed. Perez said the difference is the larger number represents contracts for services not yet billed.

Around two-thirds of the $300,000 that has been spent was in addressing the "Troopergate" issue last fall. Palin herself initiated the personnel board investigation on "Troopergate," saying that the state Legislature's investigation of the matter was politicized and she was seeking the appropriate venue to deal with it. The Palin administration cost breakdown also includes what's calculated as more than $100,000 worth of per-hour state lawyer time related to the Legislature's investigation of the "Troopergate" affair. The Legislature's report found Palin abused her power, while the personnel board's investigator disagreed.

Another significant chunk of the $1.9 million that Palin talks about is what her administration says is over $415,000 worth of staff time in the governor's office.

Perez said that represents an estimated 5,773 hours of staff time doing tasks related to public records requests and ethics complaints, whether it be Palin's spokeswoman answering questions about complaints, staffers making copies, or time the head of the governor's Anchorage office, Kris Perry, spends reviewing documents.

"Kris Perry, at least half of her time is spent dealing with ethics complaints and public records requests," said the governor's spokeswoman, Leighow.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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