Today, at 9 a.m. local time in Juneau, the state of Alaska is scheduled to release 24,199 pages of emails Sarah Palin sent and received during her half-term as governor of the Last Frontier. State workers will distribute six-box sets and hand trucks (which must be returned) to representatives of a dozen or so media outfits, including Mother Jones. Immediately, a mad dash will be on, with journalists reviewing (and scanning) these thousands of emails, searching for illuminating or entertaining information regarding the GOP’s number-one political celebrity, who remains a possible 2012 presidential contender. (Shortly after the release, Mother Jones, msnbc.com, and ProPublica will post online a searchable archive of the emails.) This saga began with a request I made almost three years ago.
When John McCain chose Palin as his sidekick, reporters rushed to dig up what they could about the little-known chief executive of the faraway state. As part of that frenzy, I came across a local story about a citizen activist in Alaska named Andrée McLeod, who had used the state's open-records law to request emails sent to and from two of Palin's top aides over a period of several months in 2008. McLeod suspected that the pair had engaged in prohibited political activity during official business hours. The governor's office handed over four large boxes of emails, portions of which McLeod used as the basis for filing an ethics complaint. But more intriguing than the documents released was the material withheld: 1,100 emails the state deemed exempt from release because they were covered by the "executive" or "deliberative process" privileges that protected communications between Palin and her aides about policy matters. The subject lines of several of the withheld emails—which were catalogued in a list given to McLeod—suggested that they were not policy-related. Several referred to one of Palin's political foes, others to a well-known Alaskan journalist.
Though it appeared that Palin's administration might have abused the exemptions to hide politically inconvenient emails, I thought it was worthwhile to shoot for the moon. On September 8, 2008—ten days after McCain tapped Palin as his running mate—I filed a request with the state for "all emails sent and received by" Palin during her entire tenure as governor.
This was the first comprehensive request for the Palin emails received by the state. In subsequent days, other media outlets submitted more-limited requests. The Associated Press and NBC News requested copies of emails sent to and from Todd Palin. Msnbc.com asked for emails between Sarah Palin and certain state employees. CNN requested emails to and from the McCain presidential campaign.
Palin's use of a private account was arguably improper and perhaps a violation of state guidelines. Why should news organizations and citizens have to pay extra because the governor had decided to engage in state business on a private email account?
I wasn't sure whether the state could process my request before the November election, when Americans would have to render judgment on the McCain-Palin ticket. That would would entail collecting and reviewing a lot of information. But the state's initial response, outlined in a September 22 letter, was almost encouraging. The state noted that it would take eight hours of computer staff time to gather the emails and perform "security operational management," whatever that meant. For all this, Mother Jones would have to pay a fee of $2,249.46. But there would be an additional cost for copying. The normal duplication fee, the state said, was 10 cents a page. But for this request the state had opted to use an outside vendor that charged 29 cents a page. And there was no way to tell at the start how many pages would be produced; certainly there would be thousands.
Without knowing what the final fee would be, Mother Jones decided to proceed, and the state revised the initial fee covering the search to $590.96. That seemed a like bargain. I sent in a check. We were on our way.
But soon, a big problem materialized. News reports revealed that Palin had used a private Yahoo email account to conduct state business. (This account was soon hacked.) I asked Palin's office whether it would be collecting emails related to state business sent to and from this account. Linda Perez, the administrative director of the Alaska governor's office, replied, "We are unable to access records from the nonstate email accounts as we are not the account owner or customer of the providers."
Regarding this Yahoo account, the state, Perez reported, could only gather emails that Palin had sent to or received from the official email accounts of other state employees, including her aides. But doing so would require searching the accounts of dozens of other state employees at a cost of $960.31 per account. Perez noted that searching through the email of all state employees would result in an exorbitant fee. But, she added, there were 68 employees within the executive offices of the governor. This meant a limited search would cost about $65,000.
I protested. Palin's use of a private account was arguably improper and perhaps a violation of state guidelines. Why should news organizations and citizens have to pay extra because the governor had decided to engage in state business on a private account? I requested that the fees associated with searching these 68 accounts be waived. Days later, the news emerged that Palin had used a second private account to communicate with a small circle of staff members—further complicating the effort to gather her emails.
Palin had in effect created a challenge for the state (especially its IT workers), and the state agreed to drop all search fees. Officials returned my check for $590.96, while noting that the request still would probably end up costing between $7,000 and $13,000 in copying fees. (Mother Jones, msnbc.com, and ProPublica agreed to cover these costs, share the documents, and jointly develop the online archive.) But now the major issue was time. Recovering the emails from Palin's various official and nonofficial accounts and then reviewing those messages would take a while. "I can't even begin to estimate," Perez told me, with a sigh, in October 2008.
At this point, it was obvious there would be no Palin emails released before the election. Though the state could have gone ahead and collected and reviewed emails from her state account—which presumably would have taken less time—it insisted on making those official emails a part of the more comprehensive and time-consuming project.