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14th official delay keeps Palin e-mail requests in limbo

Richard Mauer
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

The governor has come and gone, another has assumed the office and then has been elected in his own right, and activist Andree McLeod, four journalists and an author are still waiting for the state to release the public record of Sarah Palin's e-mails.

On Nov. 30, one of former Attorney General Dan Sullivan's last official acts before becoming Natural Resources commissioner was to authorize a 14th delay for the governor's office to provide the e-mails. Now, with delays number 15 and 16 pending, there may be an end in sight: May 31, 2011, according to a work plan announced by the governor's office this week.

McLeod filed her request for the file of official e-mails of then-Gov. Palin and her husband and adviser, Todd, on Oct. 1, 2008, just about a month after Republican presidential candidate John McCain picked Palin as his running mate. Most of the others made their requests around the same time.

Palin quit in July, 2009 and may now be contemplating a presidential run.

One of the journalists, David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, has written that he had hoped to have at least some of the e-mails in time for the November 2008 election. Now he's wondering whether they'll be available before the 2012 presidential election.

McLeod asked the state for every e-mail written by or received by Palin on her state e-mail account and all e-mails in any private account maintained by Palin and her husband that related to state business.

McLeod has accused the administrations of Palin and her former lieutenant governor and now successor, Sean Parnell, of abuse of power "with these delay tactics."

"Who does Sean Parnell protect and defend by keeping these official e-mail documents secret?" McLeod wrote to Sullivan, objecting to the proposed 14th delay. "Who does he serve? Ex-governor Sarah Palin, or the people of Alaska?"

But state officials say they are doing the best they can with an enormous quantity of data stored in antiquated electronic databases. Each e-mail, once retrieved, must be scrutinized for private or otherwise non-releasable information, they say.

A 26,553-PAGE BOOK

There's no doubt that some portion of the tens of thousands of e-mails sent, received, or copied by Palin and her husband are public records subject to disclosure under state law. Linda Perez, administrative director for the governor's office, has told the requesters that officials have identified 26,553 printed pages of e-mails responsive to the requests.

So far, about 7,400 of those pages have been reviewed by state lawyers for advice on non-releasable content, she said. She didn't say how many pages passed the legal test in whole or in part.

But in any event, she said, they will have to be reviewed again by someone in the governor's office. And that second review won't begin until the lawyers are finished, she said. Under the work plan Perez announced Monday, the lawyers would finish by March 31 and the second review would take another 60 days.

Think of it as a 26,553-page book being passed around the capitol and the Department of Law in Anchorage that would be roughly equivalent -- in volume, anyway -- to reading "War and Peace" 19 times.

"We do not yet know how many records the Governor's Office will redact, withhold, or release because, while the Department of Law provides advice on whether records include privileged or confidential information, the Governor's Office decides whether to redact, withhold, or release its records," Perez told Corn in an e-mail Dec. 17.

In her latest message to the requesters, Perez said the remainder of the review will cost the Department of Law $120,000 -- the salary of one assistant attorney general devoting full time to the effort, plus a former assistant attorney general under contract. And that cost doesn't include the final review in the governor's office.

After initially telling the requesters they'd have to pay research and other fees amounting to as much as $15 million each, the governor's office now only expects to charge them for copying -- about 10 cents a page.

Bill Dedman, a Connecticut-based investigative reporter for msnbc.com and one of those who has asked for the records, said responding to those requests is an obligation of government, not much different than installing a stop sign.

"Distributing public records is part of what the government does," he said.

'WE WERE JUST NOT READY FOR THE NEW WORLD'

The search for the Palin e-mails began when McCain surprised nearly everyone and picked the young Alaska governor as the Republican vice presidential nominee. She was not quite two years into her own term and Alaskans were still learning about her governing style and ability. The nation knew nothing.

"In the week or two after she got famous, it was only natural that we started asking for her e-mail," Dedman said. "These are government e-mails, public e-mails, and then after the stories were written about her and her staff using private Yahoo accounts to conduct state business, that obviously ratcheted up the interest -- what was there in those?"

The state has fulfilled some requests. An NBC producer's request for Todd Palin's e-mails to or from the governor and seven members of her staff returned about 2,500 pages of documents and squarely revealed the quasi-official role of "the First Dude" in state policy, personnel decisions and political strategy.

It was also a test case for the much larger records requests to come. Deputy Attorney General Craig Tillery said the state had a relatively new archival system, but it was a failure for the task. Searches were difficult and each e-mail had to be opened individually, printed, then read by an attorney who would suggest whether the document was a public record. In some, portions were blanked out -- redacted -- then photocopied and finally delivered to Dedman.

Dedman said a document management company volunteered to scan the paper printouts back into electronic format and place it on the Internet so it could be searched by anyone.

"Rube Goldberg could not provide a better system," he said.

The governor's office saved the largest requests for last. Dedman, Corn, McLeod, Mark Thiessen of the Associated Press in Anchorage, Alan Suderman, formerly of the Juneau Empire, and California writer Geoffrey Dunn had requests similar enough that the state has been dealing with them as a group.

Tillery said the state was caught completely off guard by the massive requests.

"It was not something we or the division or the tech guys were prepared for," he said. It took over a year just to find the correct e-mails and print them out, he said.

The chief "tech guy," director Anand Dubey of the state's Enterprise Technology Services, said it was his job to make the Zantaz archive system work when he took over about three years ago.

"I was the lucky director who discovered it doesn't work -- it's a sinking feeling, man," Dubey said. "It was one of those sad situations -- we were just not ready for the new world, and then with Gov. Palin, people just got very interested in her. If it weren't for Gov. Palin, we wouldn't be experiencing anything like this."

Running a search was so complicated, it had to be done by technical staff, he said. A replacement system now being implemented, made by Symantec, will improve the situation because authorized users will be able to conduct their own e-mail archive searches. But paper copies will still have to be printed until the state gets software that will allow electronic redacting, he said.

That's a far cry from just a few years ago, when a public record often consisted of a file folder on someone's desk that could be photocopied in a few minutes and handed over, Dubey said.

"Now you could search for e-mails belonging to 16,000 to 20,000 state employees. And each state employee would have thousands of e-mails," he said.

'FIRM WORK PLAN' REQUIRED

McLeod, the citizen activist and a one-time Palin ally before they fell out, is also pursuing the Yahoo accounts that Palin and her staff used to avoid the state's e-mail system. Though the Parnell administration has issued orders against the use of outside mail accounts for state business, McLeod went to the courts to try to get the practice banned permanently because it put public records beyond the reach of the public.

Arguments are scheduled before the Alaska Supreme Court in January on an appeal she brought seeking a judgment that such accounts violate the state public records law. A Superior Court judge ruled that while it's possible that a public record could be created in an outside account, it was beyond the court's authority to declare the practice illegal -- that would be up to the Legislature. McLeod is seeking to overturn that ruling.

As the e-mail requests drag on, Sullivan, the outgoing attorney general, added a wrinkle in his approval of the 14th delay last month: He told Perez, the administrator in the governor's office, that any additional extension requests "must be accompanied by a firm work plan that will explain when the review will be completed and, in light of resource constraints, how the review will be accomplished."

Perez replied with a request for a 15th delay, through Dec. 31, to come up with a plan. With submission of the work plan came delay number 16, to May 31.

David Jones, one of the attorneys in the Department of Law who's been reviewing the e-mails, helped estimate how much time it will take for the lawyers to finish. It hasn't been easy, he said.

"Everything about this process has proven difficult for me to predict because every time I think I have a handle on how much longer I think we have to go, it goes beyond that," Jones said.

Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.

More Sarah Palin coverage
By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com