Sarah Palin’s New Reason

Blame it on the Records Act

Since Sarah Palin’s unexpected announcement that she would vacate Alaska’s governorship before the end of the month, there’s been a lot of head-scratching and asking why, exactly—barely two-and-a-half years into her only experience in major elected office—she decided to go.

The FBI has ruled out a federal investigation. All the other juicy rumors haven’t panned out. So far, the best explanation we have is the one the governor and her allies are offering: that ever since she became John McCain’s running mate, state government has been bogged down with entangling and expensive ethics inquiries. Here’s how she put it in last Friday’s lakeside resignation speech:

Political operatives descended on Alaska last August, digging for dirt. The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice. Over the past nine months I’ve been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations – such as holding a fish in a photograph, wearing a jacket with a logo on it, and answering reporters’ questions.

Every one—all 15 of the ethics complaints have been dismissed. We’ve won! But it hasn’t been cheap—the State has wasted THOUSANDS of hours of YOUR time and shelled out some two million of YOUR dollars to respond to “opposition research”—that’s money NOT going to fund teachers or troopers—or safer roads.

In her bayside, wader-wearing interviews on Monday, Palin unspecifically revised that figure upwards to “millions” of dollars. And the thrust of her comments on both occasions implied that the bulk of this money has been spent on responding to the dismissed (and, as she’s described them, “frivolous”) ethics complaints made under the Executive Branch Ethics Act, to which, in 2007, she signed major revisions into law. (It’s worth noting that one of the “dismissed” ethics complaints was only dismissed after Palin, under a settlement reached with the Alaska Personnel Board, agreed to reimburse the state for half a dozen plane trips her children took on the taxpayers’ dime. Another resulted in an aide being asked to take ethics training.)

But that $2 million figure doesn’t come close to adding up, unless an entirely other category of expenses is included: the state’s costs to fulfill requests under the Alaska Public Records Act.

Sean Parnell, the lieutenant governor who will take over for Palin, gave us a glance at the full math in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, where Chris Wallace asked him to sum up exactly why his boss was leaving the job.

PARNELL: You know, I think what I heard from the governor really had to do with the weight on her, the concern she had for the cost of all the ethics investigations and the like, the way that that weighed on her with respect to her inability to just move forward Alaska’s agenda on behalf of Alaskans in the current context of the environment. So that’s what I saw.

WALLACE: So basically, she was saying that all of the personal attacks, all of the ethics attacks—that that was preventing her from doing her job. That’s why she decided to quit.

PARNELL: Well, and the fact that it cost—it was costing just about $2 million of state taxpayers’ dollars just to fund the staff to deal with the records requests and the like, and that—that was just over the top, and I think she used the word insane in her—in her remarks.

According to Parnell, it wasn’t just that Palin was feeling bogged down under the weight of the ethics complaints, it was also that costs for filling “records requests and the like” had gotten out of hand.

And maybe Palin meant to include Records Act expenses in her public remarks, with her vague references on Friday and Monday to “opposition research.” It’s not hard to see how Palin or her defenders could construe both categories of expenses as intertwined consequences of some $2 million “Get Sarah” project, launched shortly after her ascendancy to the national scene.

Of course, some requests have come from opponents—like the Alaska Democratic Party—looking for dirt. But most have come from state and national media, and local bloggers and citizens. One woman’s dirt-digging is another’s treasure: a key principle of open records is the presumption that requesters have a right to the information, no matter what their intent is in seeking it. And in our oppositional system some of the most valuable political accountability comes from self-interested political opponents.

Today, the Anchorage Daily News has a story that sifts through the $2 million figure, based on a vague spreadsheet from the Palin’s press office that was e-mailed to reporters.

The spreadsheet, provided to CJR by Mark Thiessen, the Associated Press’s Alaska news editor, and available for download here, illustrates the hazards of the simplistic claim that the records requests stem from political persecution.

Its total, at $1,963,840, is just shy of the $2 million figure, and hardly the “millions” Palin claimed on Monday. And it includes expenses that resulted from complying with both the Records Act and the Ethics Act. The total even includes some expenses incurred before Palin agreed to run for vice president, and $116,674 in expenses related to the state legislature’s investigation into the firing of an Alaska state trooper once married to Palin’s sister. The legislature hired its chief investigator about a month before Palin joined McCain on the campaign trail.

Taking the spreadsheet’s figures at face value, the Palin administration claims to have spent, at a bare minimum, $779,281 fulfilling public records requests. In general, the spreadsheet doesn’t break down the amount spent on wrestling with any particular request. One itemized expense claims about $24,000 in litigation costs tied to a request by Alaskans For Clean Water that sought records related to the administration’s contacts with the mining industry in advance of a failed environmental ballot initiative.

Missing from that minimum $779,281 are any records expenses incurred by the Office of the Governor, because that office did not break down its expenses. The numbers on the spreadsheet from her office total $425,552, and don’t distinguish between how much was spent fulfilling records requests and how much was spent dealing with ethics complaints. But as Palin’s personal lawyer explained in an e-mail to Ashby Jones, who writes a law blog for The Wall Street Journal, Palin was forced to retain independent counsel at her own expense to deal with most of the ethics complaints.

So it doesn’t seem a stretch to assume that well over half of her office’s undistinguished expenses reflect records requests—and if that’s the case, it’s clear that Palin’s $2 million number is, in fact, mostly the result of costs connected to fulfilling records requests. (A Palin spokeswoman did not return requests for comment on the spreadsheet before publication.)

And even then, the actual charge to the public needn’t be so high. Alaska’s Records Act provides ample opportunity to charge fees to recoup many, thought not all, costs associated with the requests. And the state hasn’t exactly been shy about requesting such fees, at times asking for up to $15 million for particularly labor intensive electronic records searches. While the state can’t ask for reimbursement for staff time taken to vet requested documents to determine whether they are subject to the Records Act, they can recoup the cost of staff time used to fulfill the requests, and for equipment used to that end.

Exorbitant records request fees are a barrier to transparency and accountability nationwide, but if Palin had really been distressed over the cost to taxpayers to process these requests, her administration could have charged for some of the labor and materials used to provide the records—certainly the $128,000 that appears on the spreadsheet from a state IT department, which includes $63,000 in equipment and data tapes used to get electronic records.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried a column by John Fund that was even more gung ho than the Palin administration has been in fixing blame. It’s headline? “Why Palin Quit: Death by a Thousand FOIAs.”

This situation developed because Alaska’s transparency laws allow anyone to file Freedom of Information Act requests. While normally useful, in the hands of political opponents FOIA requests can become a means to bog down a target in a bureaucratic quagmire, thanks to the need to comb through records and respond by a strict timetable. Similarly, ethics investigations are easily triggered and can drag on for months even if the initial complaint is flimsy. Since Ms. Palin returned to Alaska after the 2008 campaign, some 150 FOIA requests have been filed and her office has been targeted for investigation by everyone from the FBI to the Alaska legislature.

That opening sentence is odd, and not only because Fund (and his copy editor) make the rookie mistake of conflating Alaska’s Records Act with the immaterial federal FOIA. It seems like Fund thinks Alaska’s records law is unusually prone to abuse. It’s not. While a handful of states technically require that the requester be a state resident, the vast majority do not. None restricts access to certain classes of residents, because having the records accessible to everyone is kind of the whole point.

Yes, it’s true that since Palin entered the spotlight Alaska has been deluged with records requests—a spokeswoman talking to the Daily News put the number at 189, close to twice what the previous governor encountered in his full four-year term. And while that may be a pain for the line officers and clerical staff who have to fulfill the requests, it’s simply the cost of doing business; Alaska law thankfully requires that most records be made public upon request, presumably because, like every jurisdiction with a records-access law, Alaska’s officials believe that the public is served by having access to information about the decisions and operations of its government.

For Sarah Palin to complain that the state has spent a million or two toward this goal (that’s well short of two one-hundredths of a percent of the state budget) is odd for a politician who campaigned on reform, transparency, and ethics, and who, in her 2006 inauguration speech, implored her constituents with this charge:

“Alaskans, hold me accountable!”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.