Sarah Palin's Wasilla Emails: Did She Violate State Law?

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 11:45 PM EDT

Sarah Palin made her bones as a self-proclaimed Republican reformer in Alaska when she turned on a Republican Party state chairman who had had been accused of wrongdoing. In 2003, that GOP leader, Randy Ruedrich, was one of three members of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; Palin chaired the commission and served as its ethics officer. After the news broke that Ruedrich had hosted a Republican fundraiser with several oil company executives and had sent out an email notice for a different Republican fundraising event, critics demanded he resign.

Leading the anti-Ruedrich pack was Palin. She threatened to quit the commission unless Ruedrich resolved his conflicts. "It was a very simple issue," she said at the time. "It was black and white." And after Ruedrich was forced out, Palin, acting at the behest of state investigators, examined his computer files and found emails and documents showing that Ruedrich had used his state office to conduct partisan work for the Republican Party. The records Palin unearthed became evidence in a state investigation that led to a settlement under which Ruedrich paid a $12,000 fine.

Thanks to this episode, Palin became known as a Republican willing to take on a fellow Republican who had abused his office and misused state resources. But what was not known at the time was that a year earlier, Palin had used official resources for her own partisan purposes. In doing so, Palin, now the governor of Alaska and the Republican vice presidential nominee, might have run afoul of state law and the municipal code of Wasilla.

According to emails obtained by Andrée McLeod, a self-described independent government watchdog in Alaska, and shared with Mother Jones, in 2002, when Palin was in her last year as mayor of Wasilla and running for lieutenant governor in a Republican primary, she used her official city email account for campaign purposes. In a June 11, 2002 email to Randy Ruedrich--sent from her sarah@ci.wasilla.ak.us account--Palin asked if the state Republican Party would disseminate notices for her fundraisers. "I have a heckuva' lot of notices I would love to be distributed to all the [state party] lists because I'm not networked into all the valuable distribution lists that other candidates may be networked into," she wrote. "Can you do that for me?"

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In a July 2, 2002 email to Ruedrich--with the subject line reading "right to life endorsements"--Palin complained that Alaska Right to Life, the state's leading anti-abortion rights outfit, had not endorsed her in the lieutenant governor's race. "Randy," she wrote, "I was allowed to 'vent' via [a] letter to the RTL Board re: their decision to not co-endorse pro-life candidates in the Lt. Gov. race. Man, I am disappointed." And the day before the Republican primary, in an August 26, 2002 email to Eddie Grasser, a leader of the Alaska Outdoor Council, a lobby for hunters and firearms owners, Palin expressed her disappointment at not receiving the AOC endorsement. She pointed out that she was a "lifetime member of the NRA" and a "recipient of its "Defender of the 2nd Amendment Award." In the email--which promoted her campaign positions--she objected to the process used by the AOC in endorsing one of her opponents in the Republican primary contest: "The AOC stated the endorsement was based on candidates' answers to the AOC's 'extensive questionnaire'...but in reality there was no questionnaire sent to Lt. Gov. candidates." She asked if she could "use the AOC's email address book to remind our members of my positions." And she encouraged Grasser to visit her campaign website. This email--also sent via her official Wasilla city account--was addressed to over 300 people in addition to Grasser. (In the GOP primary, Palin placed second in a field of five.)

Under Alaska state law, an officer of a municipality "may not use money held by the entity to influence the outcome of the election of a candidate to a state or municipal office." Asked whether this prohibition would cover a mayor using an official email account to promote and advance her own campaign, Holly Hill, the executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, referred me to a decision issued by the commission this past July. The case involved a mayor of Unalaska named Shirley Marquardt. In 2007, she had sent an email to a city consultant and the city manager, noting who would be running against her for mayor. The commission ruled that this message had been more personal than political. But in its decision, the commission declared that the Alaska law prohibiting a municipal official from using public funds for partisan actions "covers a publicly-owned e-mail system."

The Wasilla municipal code also contains strict guidelines governing the use of electronic communications by city officials. Elected officials, according to the code, may not use the city's "electronic facilities" for "personal gain," to promote "political beliefs," or to "support or oppose any candidate for public office."

Palin is already involved in other email controversies. In response to an open records act request filed in June by McLeod, a registered Republican, Palin's gubernatorial office refused to release about 1100 emails received and sent earlier this year by Palin and her aides, citing what might be an iffy claim of executive privilege. McLeod has appealed that decision. And emails that were released to McLeod in July indicate that Palin, as governor, has used a private email account for her official duties.

As Palin and Republican presidential nominee John McCain sell themselves as a pair of reform-minded, no-business-as-usual agents of change, Palin has not yet answered questions about her email controversies. An email sent to Maria Comella, Palin's campaign spokesperson, requesting a comment for this story went unanswered.

UPDATE: In 2004, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman published a story reporting that anonymous letters had been sent to the Alaska Public Offices Commission and several media outlets alleging that Palin had used her city e-mail account for campaign-related work, had held campaign-related meetings in her office, and had used her office telephone for calls regarding her campaign for lieutenant governor. The complaint cited the email she had sent to the Alaska Outdoor Council. Palin told the newspaper that this one particular email had been an isolated event. She blamed Randy Ruedrich supporters for launching an unfair attack on her; Ruedrich denied any knowledge of the letters. An APOC official stated at the time that the commission would not investigate the complaint because it was anonymous.