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.