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.