You've seen Sarah Palin's tweets. Imagine reading thousands of her emails.
A group of journalists, including myself, have been trying for two years to win access, under Alaska's open records law, to emails Palin sent and received during her partial stint as governor of Alaska. But the state has postponed releasing the emails, with the office in charge of the request repeatedly asking for and receiving extensions from a series of state attorneys general (including Palin appointees). But the delays could be coming to a halt, with the current AG demanding a "work plan" for turning over the Palin emails.
Nine days after Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008 tapped Palin to be his vice presidential running-mate, I sent Palin's office a request for all emails written by her, received by her, or cc'ed to her during her tenure as governor. In subsequent weeks other news organizations, including the Associated Press and MSNBC.com, the state Democratic Party, and individuals (such as Alaskan citizen watchdog Andree McLeod) filed similar requests.
The request for Palin's emails was not a simple one for her office to handle. Months earlier, the Alaska governor's office had used (or abused) exemptions in the law (covering materials related to the "deliberative processs") to hold back from public release 1,100 emails to and from state officials, including Palin. And, it turned out, Palin had used private email accounts for state business. That meant it would be tough for state record-keepers to locate all her emails, for the state didn't have direct access to these accounts. The governor's office said it would have to search through 68 official state email accounts used by Palin's aides to collect emails to and from Palin's unofficial email addresses—at a search cost of $960.31 for each account. (Some of the emails from her private accounts became public in 2008, after a hacker gained access.)
Initially, the state asked Mother Jones to cover the cost of this excavation: about $65,000. After the magazine protested, the office changed course and said there would be no fees for these searches. But the state did say the request would probably cost between $7,000 and $13,000 in copying fees. (Mother Jones, MSNBC.com, and Pro Publica, the non-profit investigative reporting outfit, agreed to cover these costs, share the documents, and place a searchable archive of the emails on line.) Still, recovering Palin's emails (from her unofficial accounts) and then reviewing those messages and the emails to and from her official state account would take time. "I can't even begin to estimate," Linda Perez, the administrative director of the office of governor, told me, with a sigh, in October 2008.
Now, it's more than two years later. Last June, the state did release to MSNBC.com and NBC News nearly 3,000 pages of emails Todd Palin had exchanged with state officials. (The documents showed how deeply involved the "First Dude" was in official affairs.) But Sarah Palin's emails remained behind a bureaucratic firewall.
The governor's office—after consolidating various media requests—did start working on the case in the fall of 2008. And it also began requesting extensions from the state attorney general. Over the past two years, the office has asked for over a dozen extensions, and the state AG always said yes.
By early December 2008, the governor's office had collected 25,700 emails it deemed responsive to the assorted requests. It told the state attorney general that it would require at least 33 working days to print them (using one or more interns to print 100 emails an hour). Only after the emails are in hard-copy form, the governor's office said, could the state Department of Law review each one "to ensure that protected interests of private or government persons or entities are not infringed."
The governor's office did try a faster alternative. It provided the emails to the Department of Law in electronic form, hoping that office could use software it had recently obtained to review the emails electronically. This would cut out the long printing process. But, according to a January 28, 2009, memo from the Department of Law, the lawyers "found no way to convert the e-mail records from the format provided to the portable document format (pdf) necessary to use the new software, without opening each individual message to convert it." The memo also noted, "We were unable to batch-print the e-mail records in the format provided." Though the governor's office had indicated nearly two months earlier that the printing process was underway, it appeared that the records were still not printed and, thus, not available for review by the state's lawyers. The Department of Law noted, "we can only guess how long it will take to review the records."
A few weeks later, acting Attorney General Richard Svobodny sent a letter to the journalists who had filed the requests for Palin's emails noting that the "largest requests"—presumably mine—"have generated over 250,000 records." But this included "duplicates and non-responsive documents" that would have to be "culled out." He maintained that the culling would be "a formidable task" and that this culling and the subsequent reviewing "for privileged information" would "undoubtedly take a long time." Yet he said he would direct the attorneys and paralegals working on this task treat it as "a very high priority for them."
Such priority status did not change the pace. In the following months, the governor's office kept asking for extensions, and the attorney general kept granting them. When Palin resigned as governor of Alaska in July 2009, the governor's office asked the journalists if they were "still interested in the requested records." We said yes. Two weeks later, the Department of Law wrote another memo, reporting that it had a team of six attorneys and four paralegals and associate attorneys on the case. It claimed it had "continued to make significant progress." More extensions came and went.
This past September, the governor's office asked for another delay. It was approved. But in a November 29 letter to that office, the latest attorney general, David Sullivan, signaled it was time to get serious about bringing the process to a conclusion. He told the governor's office that any further requests for more time "must be accompanied by a firm work plan that will explain when the review will be completed." After all, having worked on these records for over a year and a half, the team at the Department of Law could certainly by this point estimate how much time would be necessary to finish its review.
That work plan has not yet been completed, according to Linda Perez of the governor's office. In a December 17, 2010, email to Mother Jones, she noted that the Department of Law is still determining what resources it can apply to this job. She reported that after the culling was done, the request yielded 26,553 pages of Palin emails. (Remember, this does not include every business-related email sent to or from Palin's private accounts; the state's search only covered those emails Palin exchanged with the official accounts of Alaskan officials. If she had used one of her private accounts to email a private citizen—say a business leader or a party figure—about state business, or to email the private account of an aide, that correspondence would not be collected via this search.) Of these pages, the Department of Law has reviewed only 7,400—less than a third.
At that rate, the legal evaluation could take another year or two. And the lawyers' review is not final. There's another step. Once the Department of Law examines each page, it provides advice on whether the document includes privileged or confidential information. The governor's office then decides whether to redact, withhold, or release the document. The current governor, Sean Parnell, a former lobbyist at Patton Boggs (a leading lobbying firm in Washington, DC), ran for lieutenant governor in 2006 as Sarah Palin's running mate. So, ultimately, the office of this onetime Palin ally will determine what Palin emails will be released. "We do not know yet when the Governor's office will complete" its review, Perez said.
When the other reporters and I first filed our requests for Palin's emails, we wondered if we would have any records before Election Day in 2008. It quickly became apparent that the state would not release any of this material before Americans would render judgment on the McCain-Palin ticket. Now the question is, will the long run of extensions push the release of her gubernatorial emails into the 2012 presidential season, when she might be a candidate? It's possible this request could go unfinished until after the next election. But even if the state does turn over her emails in the next year or so, there will probably be significant material redacted. That could prompt legal challenges that extend this process up to Election Day 2012—or, perhaps conveniently for Palin, beyond that.