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Palin e-mails reveal a powerful ‘first dude’

Nearly 3,000 pages of e-mails that the first gentleman of Alaska, Todd Palin,  exchanged with state officials draw a picture of his influence on policy in the Sarah Palin administration.'s Bill Dedman reports.
Image: Sarah Palin and her husband Todd
Nearly 3,000 pages of e-mails that the first gentleman, Todd Palin,  exchanged with state officials draw a picture of his influence on policy in the Sarah Palin administration. Other e-mails are still being withheld by the state of Alaska.Robyn Beck / AFP-Getty Images file
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Officially he was the first gentleman of Alaska. More people called him the "first dude." But newly released e-mails show that Todd Palin was busy doing more than snow machine driving and salmon fishing during Sarah Palin's two and a half years as governor and vice presidential candidate.

Nearly 3,000 pages of e-mails that Todd Palin exchanged with state officials, which were released to and NBC News by the state of Alaska under its public records law, draw a picture of a Palin administration where the governor's husband got involved in a judicial appointment, monitored contract negotiations with public employee unions, received background checks on a corporate CEO, added his approval or disapproval to state board appointments and passed financial information marked "confidential" from his oil company employer to a state attorney.

You can read all those e-mails in's searchable online archive, created in cooperation with a legal services company, Crivella West. We're still going through the documents, and invite readers at to search for themselves, connect the dots with public issues, and send us an e-mail with your own analysis.

While 1,200 separate e-mails were released this week, 243 others were withheld by the state under a claim that executive privilege extends to Todd Palin as an unpaid adviser to the government. Still, just the subject lines of those e-mails provide a glimpse of the ways the Palins divvied up their responsibilities when she became governor in December 2006, less than two years before Republican Sen. John McCain pulled her onto the national political stage by nominating her as his vice presidential candidate.

The 243 still-secret e-mails between Todd Palin and senior officials reach into countless areas of state government and politics: potential board appointees, constituent complaints, use of the state jet, oil and gas production, marine regulation, gas pipeline bids, postsecondary education, wildfires, native Alaskan issues, the state effort to save the Matanuska Maid dairy, budget planning, potential budget vetoes, oil shale leasing, "strategy for responding to media allegations," staffing at the mansion, pier diem payments to the governor for travel, "strategy for responding to questions about pregnancy," potential cuts to the governor's staff, "confidentiality issues," Bureau of Land Management land transfers and trespass issues and requests to the U.S. transportation secretary.

Also withheld: a discussion of how to reply to "media questions about Todd Palin's work and potential conflict of interests."

'That gossip crap bugs me'
The e-mails that were released open a curtain on the behind-the-scenes preoccupations of the Palins, particularly the flash points of family and the media, personal finances and state finances.

The governor coached her staff on how to disguise the $3,252.35 cost of electrical work at the mansion to hook up her new tanning bed. Palin and her staff stewed over the refusal of the state Public Safety Department to provide a plane so their children could fly to Todd's family's home in Dillingham; after all, they were going to attend a bill signing, so the travel requests could be justified. Sarah Palin called the decision "outrageous," and an aide said it provides "a great excuse to privatize" the governor's jet service. The manager of the Palins' travel schedule searched for a public event to use as justification ("I just need one") to charge the state for an airplane flight for Palin's daughter, Willow, who had already made the trip but missed the event given as its justification. When Sarah Palin complained that the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner wrote a critical editorial after she did them the favor of meeting with the editorial board, Todd Palin advised the press chief to "take the news miner off the press release address list for a few days, see how long it takes them to realize their not on the list." "Man, that gossip crap bugs me," Sarah Palin wrote after the Anchorage Daily News wrote about mansion repairs in its Alaska Ear political column. "Any time it has anything to do with home or family, it's irritating." A press aide apologized, saying the columnist did not to call check out stories before publishing. The residence director added, "Reminds me of junior high school, where hormonal teenagers are always looking for the drama. ... I'll do my best to avoid giving them any news nuggets."

(Update, Feb. 5: The Palins did not respond to several requests by to discuss Todd Palin's role in state government. After this article was published on Feb. 5, an attorney for the Palins, Tom Van Flein, said in an e-mail to NBC News that Todd Palin's role as an "active advisor" to his wife should come as no surprise "to most Alaskans, and to the millions of people who read "Going Rogue," Palin's autobiography.

"Like many married couples, including political 'power couples,' it is common for a spouse to play the role of key advisor to the other spouse," he wrote. "The Palins were no different. Todd Palin had official and unofficial duties, but one thing was clear: he was a key advisor to Governor Palin and involved in her efforts to improve the State of Alaska.")

(Update, Feb. 7: Sarah Palin took the same approach in an interview Sunday with Fox News. She said her husband was a close adviser. When the interviewer challenged her, saying the e-mails show Todd Palin doing far more than advising her, she said, "He never got into the minutia of the politics. Todd's too good for that. He hates this kind of periphery political bull stuff that we go through. He's not a part of any of that. And, no. More power to Todd for being a good advisor, and a good practical person with common sense solutions.")

Private e-mail accounts
Many of the e-mails on public policy issues that reviewed were written using private e-mail accounts on Yahoo and other services. The governor and her top aides set up accounts outside the state system, supposedly outside the reach of the public records laws. Outside accounts also helped avoid any violation of the state law against using public resources for campaigning.

Todd Palin's e-mail address at that time was named for his hobby as a four-time champion driver in the 1,971-mile Iron Dog snow machine races:, or Iron Dog winner.

The governor wrote mostly from and sometimes from, until that account was cracked in September 2008 by an anonymous Internet user, who boasted that he figured out the answers to her Yahoo security questions by browsing her Wikipedia page. A 20-year-old student at the University of Tennessee, David C. Kernell, was indicted and is awaiting trial; he was an Obama supporter and the son of a Democratic state legislator.

Few of the e-mails to and from the Palins twin Blackberrys show Todd Palin performing the traditional ceremonial duties of a governor's spouse, though he did judge the Miss Alaska competition, and he held a tea to honor former first ladies.

Several e-mails deal with purely personal matters, as the governor juggled a new job, a family that grew from four children to five soon after she became governor, the 574-mile trip from her office in Juneau to her home in Wasilla and a husband whose work took him away for weeks at a time to the North Slope and snow machine races.

At one point, Sarah Palin sent her husband instructions to stock up on "fresh fruit and veggies" for the kids, and "as little processed foods as possible."

Todd Palin tried repeatedly over a period of three months to get a staff aide to remove Todd's photo from the National Governors Association Web site, because it showed him in a T-shirt.

In another e-mail, the couple discussed a rare opportunity to enjoy a date night out without the kids; they saw "Juno," the film about a teenager with an unplanned pregnancy, on March 7, 2008, just short of 10 months before their unmarried 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, gave birth to a son.

Of the e-mails released this week, dozens have information redacted, or blanked out, sometimes leaving little more than a subject line.

One example:

Sarah Palin's head of boards and commissions, political aide Ivy Frye, wrote to Todd Palin on June 26, 2007, asking about a member of a state commission on domestic violence, an appointee of her predecessor, Gov. Frank Murkowski.

"Hey, Todd, Do you know Kim Williams from Dillingham? She has a term expiring on the Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Board and I wanted to see what you knew about her. Thanks."

Dillingham is Todd Palin's hometown.

His reply the next day is completely deleted in the documents released this week, with the word "Redacted" in its place.

But the public can see Frye's reply, "Thank you. That was very helpful."

At her home in Dillingham on Thursday, Williams told that she was not re-appointed, and was never told why. But she didn't sound upset.

"Todd and I grew up together. I guess this summer I'll have to ask Todd what he said about me," she said with a laugh.

She said she wouldn't be surprised if the governor bounced a lot of subjects off of her spouse. "It's the first time we've ever had a first dude, right? I think he was more of a sounding board for her."

'A proper advisor'
When e-mails were withheld entirely, the state usually cited the "deliberative process privilege," referring to a portion of the state public records law exempting documents about the discussion of policy. The goal of the policy, courts have held, is to allow government officials to make well-informed decisions without being impeded by making public every possible course of action discussed.

Alaska Republican Andrée McLeod has filed a lawsuit against the state on this issue. In it, she argues that if one private citizen in the state of Alaska can be privy to all these e-mails about the workings of state government, then the state has waived the privilege.

"If one citizen can see them, Todd Palin, then why can't every citizen see them?" McLeod said.

Palin's chief of staff, Michael Nizich, rejected that argument in a denial letter to McLeod's attorney. Nizich said that Todd Palin was not a third-party outsider, but an insider, "an invited advisor and participant in the actual decision-making protected by the privilege." It doesn't matter, the state argues, that Todd Palin's advice wasn't paid for; it was still solicited.

"Mr. Palin is a proper advisor to the governor," Nizich wrote. "There is nothing inappropriate about the spouse of a chief executive playing such a role. The governor is absolutely entitled to involve him in policy matters as an advisor as she sees fit."

A controversial appointment
Often the governor wasn't included on Todd Palin's e-mails at all. The staff went straight to him, or he went straight to the staff.

On a Saturday afternoon, June 23, 2007, for example, Todd Palin wrote to Sarah Palin's political aide, Ivy Frye, asking about a state judge to be appointed from the city of Soldotna. The name is omitted from the e-mail.

"I'm getting calls from Soldotna about the next judge appointment," Todd Palin wrote. "Is (redacted) on the list, I'm getting calls from folks hoping he's not selected. Let me know what's happening so I can put to rest some of the rumors."

Frye replies, "(Redacted) was nominated alond [sic] with 3 other guys-just received the names last wk. I've heard the same feedback as you. Gov has 45 days to make appt. Will interview in about 2-3 wks."

Todd Palin replied, "Thanks, Ivy."

That entire thread was actually in reply to a different topic, in which Frye passed on to Todd Palin detailed information about the Labor Department having wage and hour claims against a company whose owner had served on Todd Palin's "Disaster Cabinet." The e-mail describes the company's back payments in detail, including what the company's lawyer told the state about the owner's debts.

Similarly, when Sarah Palin's staff was engineering a rescue or takeover of the state-run Matanuska Maid dairy, Todd Palin requested information on a former executive, Terry Clark, and he got it. Background information on the former CEO was sent to Todd Palin by political aide Frank Bailey, the state director of boards and commissions.

Confidential information
Todd Palin also often served as a conduit for information to flow from one part of state government to another. When a friend or campaign aide's spouse got a state job, he was often notified. At other times, he notified the governor's office.

Sometimes information from outside flowed through him to the government. In one instance, the e-mails show, Todd Palin sent confidential financial information from his longtime employer, the oil and gas company BP, to a lawyer for the state, which does a lot of business with BP. The e-mail of financial results, written by Steve Marshall, president of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., was marked "confidential"; it told BP staff about financial results and the levels of annual bonuses to be received. Todd Palin received that e-mail from Glenn Trimmer, the secretary-treasurer of the United Steelworkers local where he was working while on a leave from BP. Palin forwarded the e-mail from his work account to his personal account, then forwarded it again from his personal account to an attorney for the state, along with financial details for a second year.

BP did not reply to a request for comment sent Thursday to the company's press contact.

The Palins did not reply to a message from sent to their spokeswoman and another to the company that manages Sarah Palin's speaking engagements. Sarah Palin is scheduled to speak Saturday evening at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, where her bio describes her as a champion of "ethics reform and transparency in government," themes of her campaign for governor. (MSNBC TV, a partner of, and other networks will broadcast her speech live at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday.)

'Shadow Governor'
Todd Palin's frequent presence in the governor's office led some in Juneau to call him the "Shadow Governor." But it had never been clear, at least to the public, what roles he played.

He did receive scrutiny for his role in the so-called Troopergate case, in which he and the governor were accused of seeking to have her former brother-in-law fired from the state police force.

Todd Palin found a small lever to use with that department at 7:30 one morning in the classified ads of the Anchorage Daily News. The Department of Public Safety wanted to buy an airplane.

"Hey Randy," he wrote on July 16, 2008, to Randall Ruaro, Sarah Palin's deputy chief of staff. "DPS is running an add [sic] in the daily news looking to purchase a Super Cub, is this purchase in their budget."

Ruaro replied an hour later, saying he would check on it. He added a note about the new DPS commissioner, Chuck Kopp: "I will also be in Anchorage tomorrow to meet with Commissioner Kopp and review issues. I think we can start making progress pretty quickly."

"Sounds great," Todd Palin replied.

Nine days later, Kopp resigned.

When, other news organizations and citizens of Alaska sought Palin e-mail records after she was named the Republican vice presidential running mate in August 2008, the state initially quoted a cost as high as $15 million for state technicians to find the e-mails, for state interns to print out the e-mails one at a time, for state lawyers to read them to determine what information could be withheld, and for a print shop to photocopy them.

That's still the laborious approach the state has taken, at what it says is a cost of more than $500,000 in staff time, but the prices it is charging have come down considerably. The state charged only $323.58 for the records released this week.

State officials said they could not figure out how to electronically search or distribute the e-mails. But such work is the bread and butter of firms like Crivella West, a Pittsburgh company, which offered to do that work for the state for free. After the state ignored its offer, contacted the company, which agreed to scan in the photocopies to turn them back into searchable text, and to set up the documents in a public archive.

Want Palin's e-mails? That'll be $15 million.Yes, we're still waiting to read Palin's e-mails

State law specifies that staff should respond to public records requests within 10 days, but it took Alaska much longer than that to produce the e-mails: The original request for these new e-mails was made in September 2008 by Aram Roston, an investigative producer for NBC News. He left NBC at the end of that year, and Palin left the governor's post the next July, but the request ground on without them.

A broader request by and other news organizations for all e-mails sent and received by the governor and about 50 top officials — about 25,000 in all — is still pending. Last week, Sarah Palin's former staff, now working for Gov. Sean Parnell, requested additional time, as required by the public records law, to respond.

Disclosure of private e-mails from government officials has been a legal issue in many states. For example, this week in North Carolina, news organizations are pursing a lawsuit to see the e-mails of the former Democratic governor, Mike Easley, who used a private, secret e-mail account to conduct state business.

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State courts usually rule that correspondence between government officials, about government business, are public records, whether they use their government e-mail accounts or private ones.

In a second Palin case filed by McLeod, the Alaska resident seeking access to her e-mails, a state judge in Alaska ruled last month that it's not necessarily a violation of the public records law for public officials to use personal e-mail accounts. Those e-mails may be public records, but only if the state agency decides to preserve them. The state has indeed preserved thousands of such records, and someday we'll expect to see more of them from the Palin administration.