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The Sarah Palin Email Saga

Mother Jones requested Palin's gubernatorial emails during the 2008 election. Almost three years later, the wait is over.

| Fri Jun. 10, 2011 3:01 AM EDT

The long wait began. As the governor's office began processing the request, every few months it asked the state attorney general for an deadline extension. And the AG (always a Republican) said yes.

In December 2008, the state—which had lumped together most of the various media requests—told us that it had collected about 25,700 relevant messages. (It was compiling emails from the official accounts of 51 state employees, not 68.) But the state noted that it would take 33 days merely to print them out—and then the lawyers would have to start reviewing the documents to determine if any material should be withheld or redacted. The state declined to say how long the legal review would go on. At the end of January 2009, the senior assistant attorney general in charge of the review noted in a memo, "Unfortunately, we have made little progress." He reported that his department had been unable to “batch-print the email records in the format provided” and that each email had to be opened individually and converted to a PDF file.

Throughout the months, the state reported various glitches. For instance, at one point its techies realized that the format for state employees' email addresses had changed during the period in question from @[department].state.ak.us to @alaska.gov. Consequently, IT staffers had to collect data from twice as many accounts as initially anticipated.

The senior assistant attorney general in charge of the review noted in a memo, "Unfortunately, we have made little progress."

In February 2009, acting attorney general Richard Svobodny declared that he had designated the ongoing email review "a very high priority" for the state’s Department of Law—as he granted another extension. The following June, he noted that the department had devoted "over 4,000 hours to providing legal review and advice on public records at a cost to the state of $450,000," and he granted another extension.

When Palin resigned as governor in July 2009, the governor's office asked the journalists seeking her emails if we were "still interested in the requested records." Yes, we replied. Two weeks later, the state’s Department of Law wrote a 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." Still, more extensions came and went. (In June 2010, the state did release to msnbc.com and NBC News nearly 3,000 pages of emails Todd Palin had exchanged with state officials. )

This past December, the state reported that it had identified 26,553 pages of emails, and the lawyers had reviewed less than one-third of this trove. More time was needed. But Alaska attorney general David Sullivan demanded that the governor's office submit a work plan that would state when the request would be finished, and a target date was set: May 31, 2011.

Now, another six months later, the governor’s office has missed that date, but by only 10 days. Not bad, considering. The final fee ended up being a reasonable $725.00 for copying.

But what's coming? Or, more important, what's not? The state has informed us that it is withholding 2,353 pages. And the released documents will contain redactions. There may be no way to tell if the suppressed material was excised legitimately. (The state, as I noted above, doesn’t have a sterling record on this front.) The lawyers who reviewed the emails and recommended deletions worked for Palin or her successor Gov. Sean Parnell, who served as Palin's lieutenant governor. Citizens might be excused for wondering if politics (or Palin protection) was a concern among the redacters. The lawyers suggested material to block; the governor's office rendered the final decision.

Also, because Palin used those personal email accounts for official communications, this collection will not be comprehensive. Emails that were sent to or from her personal email to people other than those 51 state employees—even if these communications involved state business—will not be part of this batch, nor will emails that Palin sent from her personal accounts to the personal accounts of aides and other state officials. By using personal accounts for official business, Palin has been able to evade, in part, the open records rules of her state.

Still, it is hard to envision a release of so many pages that won't contain valuable nuggets for those who want to better understand Palin, who has been all over the news of late. For months, as other leading Republicans have been stating their intentions regarding the presidential race, Palin, who has declined to indicate whether she might enter the contest, seemed somewhat eclipsed within the political-media firmament. But she recently took steps to elevate her profile, including a stunt-like family bus tour of historic sites imbued with patriotic meaning. She quickly returned to the headlines, dominating the political news—even crowding out announced candidates. A Palin presidential reality show, at the moment, appears a greater possibility. And opposition researchers in the various GOP presidential campaigns are, no doubt, eager to peruse these records.

So perhaps the Palin emails are arriving at an appropriate time. The request I placed during the last presidential campaign might end up affecting the current one.

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