JUNEAU, Alaska — If your idea of an engrossing tour through American history is reading 24,000 pages of emails from Sarah Palin's first two years as governor of Alaska, then set aside some time this weekend. A free, searchable, online archive of the former governor's public records is online now at msnbc.com.
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That free, public, searchable archive is now complete, with 12,045 documents and 24,361 pages, hosted by msnbc.com at http://palinemail.msnbc.msn.com. Though it took more than two years for the state to release the emails, on paper, they were returned to electronic form in just 12 hours. We're live-blogging the release at Open Channel, even as citizens in Juneau continue on Saturday reading the documents. The Twitter feed @openchannelblog has updates, with the hashtag #palinemail.
Among other glimpses into her time in office, the emails read so far show an inexperienced governor focused as much on burnishing her image as on crafting public policy. Palin helped to write and rewrite an op-ed column to be submitted under a friend's name about controversy involving a state-controlled dairy. She did a fake TV interview with the answers written by her staff already on the teleprompter for her to recite. Even as she signed on with the McCain campaign, she urged her staff to put out some statement under her name every day, so Alaskans would know she was still focused on the state.
At 9 a.m. Friday in Juneau (1 p.m. ET), the governor's office in Juneau released to reporters 250 pounds of printed emails sent between the former governor (and her husband) and 50 state officials.
"The thousands upon thousands of emails released today show a very engaged Gov. Sarah Palin being the CEO of her state," said a statement from the treasurer of SarahPAC, Tim Crawford. "The emails detail a governor hard at work. Everyone should read them."
Those who enjoy tweaking President Barack Obama for using a teleprompter may note this email: On March 20, 2007, Gov. Palin's staff was setting up an interview on natural gas issues with Energy TV from Canada. Here's how the interview was conducted: Her press aide, Sharon Leighow, asked the questions, and the answers were posted on a teleprompter for Palin to read. Then the fake interview was uploaded by satellite to Energy TV. "You're awesome," the governor told her staff. "You're all awesome. What a day..." Here's a copy of that email. (PDF file opens in a new window.)
The list of withheld documents itself is 189 pages, showing the 2,275 withheld pages, and is online now at msnbc.com. Here's the link to our blog, where you'll find the large PDF file. Among those emails withheld from the public were those detailing potential state appointees, judicial candidates and others having to do with legal advice, settlements and staffing issues. Others appeared to have nothing to do with state business, such as one message about "children, dinner, and prayer."
Others removed from public view include several having to do with newspapers and editorials, including two citing a “response to Juneau Empire article.” Another two related to a “child custody matter,” and a meeting with “W. Monegan,” who had served as the Alaska public safety commissioner until being dismissed in July 2008 in connection with the scandal known as "Troopergate."
At the time, Palin had reassigned commissioner Monegan because of performance-related issues. Monegan said his forced resignation may have been tied to his reluctance to fire Mike Wooten, an Alaska State trooper, who is also Palin's ex-brother-in-law and at the time was embroiled with Palin’s sister, Molly McCann, in a contentious child custody dispute.
When the Alaska Legislature appointed investigator Stephen Branchflower to look into possible ethics violations by Gov. Palin's role in the Troopergate case, the Palin administration's response was to spread rumors about his wife to attack his credibility.
In a series of emails on Aug. 1, 2008, the governor and her aides discussed how to respond to the inquiry. The conversation is heavily censored. The current governor's office withheld most of the e-mail thread.
But the progression is clear. It starts with the subject line, "Fw: Branchflower," with questions posed by the Anchorage Daily News, which asked whether the Palin administration's planned to cooperate with the investigation. The content is mostly marked "Privileged or Personal Material Redacted."
Then Palin changed the subject line to "Re: Fairness?: Branchflower." We can't see what the governor wrote.
Then the governor changed the subject line again, to "Re: MRS.: Fairness?: Branchflower," with this message from her Blackberry and her Yahoo account firstname.lastname@example.org: "Just got another call about Mrs. Blanchflower [sic] having retired after working FOR Walt at APD and the conflict involved there." Walt is apparently Monegan, whom she had dismissed.
Press aide Sharon Leighow replies, "I dropped all sorts of questions about linda," referring to Branchflower's wife, "... license lasping [sic] ... Walt association etc."
Palin replied again from her Blackberry, "Thank u."
The records were requested by msnbc.com, other news organizations and citizens in 2008, when the relatively unknown Palin was named as Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential running mate. Their release has been delayed so long that the 2012 presidential campaign has started, with Palin the possible wild card in the Republican field.
Keeping public business private
Although Palin ran for governor on a platform of openness and transparency in government, it became clear when she was running for vice president that she and her aides had moved much of their email traffic on public matters to private Yahoo accounts, presumably out of reach of the state's public records law.
But one half of these conversations did become public records: Journalists and citizens requested under state law any emails sent between those private Yahoo accounts and government accounts. Specifically, the records to be released include emails that went between the Yahoo accounts of Palin or her husband, Todd, and about 50 top state officials: the governor, her senior staff, her Cabinet, department heads, and some other state agencies. More than 2,000 pages are being withheld for privacy and other reasons allowed under state law.
An old-fashioned reading room
Msnbc.com opened one copy of the paper records immediately to citizens of Alaska, to whom the records belong. Volunteers contacted through the League of Women Voters and the Retired Public Employees of Alaska gathered at Juneau's Centennial Hall convention center, chewing through bagels and the stacks of documents. They will continue their work on Saturday. The volunteers looked for significant or interesting emails, stuck a post-it note on the pages, and passed them to journalists, who also were reading through the 24,000 pages. Exact copies of the best of those emails were posted online immediately.
A modern electronic archive
In the same room, a more modern approach was under way. A second set of the documents was be scanned for msnbc.com by Crivella West, an analytics and investigative-research company from Pittsburgh, returning the records to their original electronic form, allowing anyone anywhere to join in the crowdsourcing.
The archive, hosted by msnbc.com, is co-sponsored by Mother Jones magazine, another original requester of the documents, and by Pro Publica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom. A similar archive was created by msnbc.com and Crivella West for a smaller batch of 3,000 pages of Todd Palin emails last year. Those emails showed the vigorous role the "first dude" played in the operation of state government.
Waiting longer than she was in office
Palin was governor for 966 days, before ending her term abruptly. As of Friday, msnbc.com's request for public records was pending for 997 days.
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At $725.97 for the latest set of documents, that price is a bargain, only 3 cents a page for the photocopying, compared with the state's first cost estimate of $15 million for search and copying costs during the 2008 campaign, when officials were flustered by the burst of attention focused on their governor. At that point Crivella West offered to do the work for the state for free. The state didn't respond to the offer, but msnbc.com teamed up with the company to plan an online archive.
Executives in the office of the current governor, Sean Parnell, Palin's former lieutenant governor, said they could not figure out how to release the electronic records in an electronic form, not after certain records had to be printed so portions could be blacked out or withheld entirely. The emails are being handed out in six boxes of paper, at a cost of $725.97 per set, with free handtruck service to the curb.Video: Wikipolitics: Palin fans try to rewrite history (on this page)
Palin previously told Fox News, her employer, that she was not afraid of anything that might be revealed in the documents, that "every rock" had already been kicked over. She also said that "a lot of those emails obviously weren't meant for public consumption."
The digital revolution in reverse
Here's how the state of Alaska dealt with the requests:
- The governor's office chose the set of 50 employees and gathered all their correspondence with the Yahoo accounts of the governor and her husband. (That wasn't exactly what any of the document requesters had asked for, but the state essentially was saying, if you don't like it, sue us.)
- State employees and interns opened each e-mail, one at a time, and converted it to a PDF file, and printed that file.
- Lawyers for the state suggested which parts to withhold or black out, according to exemptions in the state records law. Palin's attorney was allowed to offer opinions on any possible privacy violations, but suggested no changes to the state's decisions, the governor's office said. The final decision was made by the governor's office.
- And finally that paper was sent to the printer to make photocopies for distribution to journalists, who now will scan those documents back into something like their original form.
Not a complete picture
The boxes of 24,199 pages of processed emails were ready to be doled out in a third-floor conference room of a state office building known to locals as the “Spam Can,” because of its apparent resemblance to the famous tin containing the processed meat product.
Another 2,275 pages are being withheld by the state, under exemptions in the state law regarding privacy, attorney-client privilege, executive privilege, and a deliberative privilege exempting "work-product" discussions of public policies. These exemptions are not mandatory — the governor's office could release all of the records, but it has chosen to withhold the 2,275 pages. Many of the state employees making these decisions had worked in the Palin administration.
Depending on how liberally the state applies these exemptions, the documents may reveal more about the tone and character of the Palin administration than they tell about her policies. A common theme among journalists gathered in Juneau was that they expected no blockbuster news, but that it's important for the journalists to follow through on requests for public records, no matter how long it takes.Video: Can Palin beat Obama if economy tanks? (on this page)
The state has taken the legal position that these executive exemptions apply even though many emails on official state business were also copied to Todd Palin, who held no state office, other than husband of the governor.
The state also is withholding "140 pages of emails that were determined to be non-records," according to Linda Perez, administrative director in the office of Gov. Parnell, a former oil-and-gas lobbyist who has won his own term of office since completing Palin's term.
And some of the pages that will be released will have information blacked out, or redacted.
The state has promised to release a log of the withheld items, as required by state law. That log will also be posted on msnbc.com at Open Channel. The log released with the earlier release of Todd Palin emails was not very descriptive. Although the state law requires custodians of public records to release all of a document that can be released, the governor's office appeared to withhold entire emails if even part of the document fit an exemption.
Other holes in the record
The records are limited in several other ways as a window into how Sarah Palin governed:
- The records cover only the first 21 months of her time in office, up until September 2008, when she was a vice-presidential candidate and the requests were made. They therefore won't tell us what was being discussed during the 2008 campaign, or over the next 10 months until Palin left office in July 2009 before her term ended. Requests are pending for records from those last months of her public service.
- They don't include all email sent between one Yahoo account and another, as apparently was the custom in the Palin administration even for discussions of official business. A legal challenge now in the state Supreme Court addresses the broader question of whether all the governor's emails about state business, even if conducted between Yahoo accounts without passing through state computers, should also be considered a public record.
Some of the withheld emails have already been available to one citizen, former Palin aide Frank Bailey, who has written a tell-all book, "Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin: A Memoir of Our Tumultuous Years." The state attorney general is looking into his use of the emails for profit.
Confronted with more than 24,000 pieces of paper in an electronic age, in a town inaccessible except by boat or airplane, journalists made some fits and starts.
The Anchorage Daily News and ABC News plan to put the records online as well. The New York Times and The Washington Post, which recently joined the request for records in the tradition of "I'll have what she's having," have announced they plan their own electronic archives.
The Post's political blog, "The Fix," at first announced on Thursday that it was recruiting a select group of 100 people to read through the documents, and then late Thursday abandoned that plan, explaining, "We have had a strong response to our crowdsourcing call-out on the Palin emails. We've reconsidered our approach and now would like to invite comments and annotations from any interested readers."
The Associated Press, another early requester of the records, announced it would fly the documents to the Lower 48 to scan them, creating an archive that would be open only to its member newspapers and customers, not the public, though by then the free public archives from others should already be online.Video: Palin defends her telling of Revere’s ride (on this page)
Other organizations expected to pay for the records were the British paper The Guardian, Bloomberg News, CNN, CBS and The Los Angeles Times, according to Perez, the administrator in the governor's office.
Other news companies, including The Wall Street Journal and The Newsweek Daily Beast, didn't buy the documents, but sent reporters at the last minute, begging to piggyback on the spade work of others.
Even the online news organization The Huffington Post, which apparently isn't purchasing a copy, posted a plea asking its readers to help it go through them. It said it "expects to start receiving some of these emails Friday afternoon," but didn't say how.
Even citizens have to pay
Andrée McLeod, the Republican activist who has taken the state to court several times in her fight for Palin public records, was told that she could not pick up her copy of the records at the governor's satellite office in Anchorage, where she lives. Gov. Parnell's office gave McLeod a choice of paying an additional $443.73 for shipping to Anchorage, or paying for a flight down to Juneau to reveiw the records by appointment sometime next week.
McLeod complained to Parnell in a letter: "You have transferred more positions from Juneau to Anchorage than other governors, not counting Sarah. For all intent and purposes, you occupy the Anchorage office as much as the Juneau one... Am I to understand that when it's convenient for you and your staff, the Anchorage office becomes a viable extension of your Juneau office, except when it serves the public re: the review of these emails as stated in the Public Records Act?”
Msnbc.com writer/editor Sylvia Wood contributed reporting in Juneau.
Live blog of the Palin email release, from msnbc.com's Open Channel
The public archive of emails.
Here are links to our previous coverage, with details on the requests, the state's explanation of the delays, and the shifting estimates of the costs.
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