How much would you pay for access to the emails Sarah Palin has sent and received as governor of Alaska? Would you part with $10,000 for them? That's basically what her office is asking.
During the general election, I filed an open records act request for all emails that had gone to and from Palin in her official capacity. And Alaska citizen watchdog Andrée McLeod, who had long been peppering Palin's office with similar requests, did the same. At a time when Palin was on the hot seat as Senator John McCain's vice presidential running mate, her office replied that it would cost over $65,000 to round up all of Palin's emails and that Mother Jones would have to cover this cost.
The problem: Palin had used at least two nonofficial email accounts (such as a Yahoo account) to conduct her state business. Given that the governor's office did not have access to those accounts, its information specialists had concluded that the only way to gather all her emails would be to search the state email accounts for about 70 people who worked within the executive offices of the governor and look for emails to and from Palin's nonofficial email accounts. Palin's office estimated it would cost almost a thousand dollars for each search of these 70 or so official accounts.
It seemed absurd and unfair for Palin's office to pass the cost of this search on to those who had requested Palin's emails. After all, she should have been using her state email account for state business. In a letter to her office, I maintained that requesters should not be forced to pay for Palin's inappropriate use of nonofficial accounts. Palin's office eventually agreed, deciding it would not charge fees for the extensive search operation that would be necessary to compile Palin's emails. In early October, it informed me that it would begin reviewing Palin's official emails and gather the emails related to state business that were sent to and from her nonofficial accounts. All for no charge.
But there was a rub: this whole process could be expected to take weeks. That meant that none of her emails (from either official or nonofficial accounts) would become public prior to the November 4 election. Because Palin had used these nonofficial accounts for official business, arguably in violation of Alaska state open records rules, she had managed (wittingly or not) to orchestrate the functional equivalent of a cover-up--at least, a temporary one.
On December 5, Linda Perez, Palin's administrative director, sent me a letter noting that Alaska's Department of Administration had completed the job of assembling Palin's emails into a single account. "The account is now available for records production purposes," she wrote. In all, there are approximately 25,700 emails in this account, the letter reported.
But they are not yet ready for release, and now here come the real fees.
Each email, Perez wrote, has to be opened and printed separately in a "fairly time-consuming" process. The cost for doing this: $3,955.23. The calculations: a staffer paid $15.39 an hour could review about 100 emails per hour. And Perez said that Mother Jones and McLeod would have to pay for this.
The process, though, would not end there. Once these emails are printed out, the records would then be sent to the state's Department of Law (which is headed by a Palin appointee) for "privilege review." That is, individual emails could be withheld on the basis of various exemptions. (When the Palin administration responded to an earlier email request from McLeod regarding two Palin staffers, it withheld over 1100 emails, relying on questionable exemptions.) So there's no guaranteeing how many of these emails will be released.
And there's more. Once the legal review is finished, the emails deemed appropriate for release will have to be copied, and Palin's office will charge a duplication fee. In earlier correspondences, Palin's office indicated the fee could be over 25 cents a page. If about 25,000 emails (a page each) are cleared for release, the copying fee could top $6,000.
Ten thousand dollars to see Palin emails reviewed by Palin's legal department? Is it worth it?
Other media outfits have submitted requests for some of Palin's emails (based on subjects). It may be possible to create a consortium of groups to share the costs. I will be talking to representatives of these other organizations to determine if we can work together. And there may be other options.
So stay tuned. Palin has certainly not retreated to Alaska. She recently campaigned for Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, during the special election Chambliss ended up winning. "I can't overstate the impact she had down here," he said afterward. With Palin acting as if she is interested in remaining a political player on the national stage, her emails--if the legal reviewers do not censor them for political purposes--might still make interesting, and perhaps important, reading.