Sarah Palin’s office has discovered a renewable resource to bring millions of dollars into Alaska’s economy: the governor’s e-mails.
The office of the Republican vice-presidential nominee has quoted prices as high as $15 million for copies of state e-mails requested by news organizations and citizens. No matter what the price, most of the e-mails of Palin, her senior staff and other state employees won’t be made public until at least several weeks after the Nov. 4 presidential election, her office told msnbc.com on Thursday.
When the Associated Press asked for all state e-mails sent to the governor’s husband, Todd Palin, her office said it would take up to six hours of a programmer’s time to assemble the e-mail of just a single state employee, then another two hours for “security” checks, and finally five hours to search the e-mail for whatever word or topic the requestor is seeking. At $73.87 an hour, that’s $960.31 for a single e-mail account. And there are 16,000 full-time state employees. The cost quoted to the AP: $15,364,960.
The AP requested e-mails between Alaska state employees and the Captain Underpants campaign and between state employees and the National Park Service. The price for them would be an additional $30 million, bringing the total to $45 million. 😯
And that’s not including the copying costs. Although the e-mails are stored electronically in Microsoft Outlook and on backup servers, and although a blank CD-ROM costs only 41 cents at Capital Office Supply in Juneau, the governor’s office says it can provide copies only on paper.
Why? Because lawyers need printouts so they can black out, or “redact,” private or exempted information. That task is more difficult because Palin and her senior staff have used government e-mail accounts for some personal correspondence, and personal e-mail accounts for much of their government correspondence.
Palin took office in December 2006, after seeking office on a platform of clean and transparent government.
The price quotes reveal that Palin’s office has repeatedly tried to charge different news organizations the cost to reconstruct the same e-mail accounts of the governor, her senior staff and other employees. Each time an e-mail is requested, the office quotes the same cost of $960.31 for 13 hours to recover and search each employee’s e-mails.
NBC’s price quote for e-mails sent to Todd Palin: $15 million.
Palin’s office hasn’t always interpreted state law in favor of public access. The Alaska law on public records does not require it to charge any fee for public records, although a fee is allowed if the processing would take five hours or more. The state law says all fees may be waived if the information is used for a public purpose, such as journalism or academic research.
Even before interest in Palin went national, large and small news organizations in Alaska have been dissuaded from seeking public records from her administration, because of the cost. Voice of the Times, a conservative online news site, was quoted a price of $1,250 in May to retrieve e-mails from the accounts of two top aides to the governor, Ivy Frye and Frank Bailey.
A weekly paper, the Anchorage Press, was told it would have to pay $6,500 for e-mails of Palin and three aides relating to the lieutenant governor.
[Kevin Brooks, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Administration] said he was also rethinking that rate of $73.87 an hour. That cost is not the actual salary of any particular employee. At that rate, an employee would be making about $144,000 a year. Instead, the state has been charging the public and news organizations the same rate that the state Enterprise Technology Services group charges other state departments, as a cost-shifting mechanism on state budget forms.
For comparison’s sake, Princess Sarah earns $125,000 a year as governor, not counting what she charges to stay home.
Alaska law does allow the state to charge for an employee’s time for recovery of records. Brooks said he thought the actual cost would be between $50 and $60 an hour, including benefits and a share of the department’s overhead costs.
As for the estimate of up to five hours to search e-mail for a single word or phrase, Brooks said he was just passing along the estimate from the technical staff.
The courts have given the Palin administration a nudge toward open records. A state judge ruled this week that the state must retrieve public e-mails sent between state accounts and the private e-mail accounts used by the governor and other state employees.
Having a private e-mail account, by itself, is not unusual or unethical, because state employees are forbidden to carry out political activities on government accounts. That’s the reason given for Palin’s habit of punching away on two separate Blackberry devices. But a citizen request earlier this year yielded hundreds of heavily redacted e-mails from the governor’s office, which suggested that Palin and her staff had chosen to move most of their government conversations off the radar, to their Yahoo accounts.
Brooks said the state doesn’t know yet how much e-mail it can recover from Yahoo, in cases where one state employee on a personal account e-mailed another on a personal account.
But the state probably can recover e-mails sent between government and personal e-mail accounts, he said. At least 18 public records requests have been filed for some or all of those e-mails.
Msnbc.com, for example, sought all e-mails sent or received by the governor and a dozen top aides between their state accounts and the personal e-mail accounts of themselves and others. The request included e-mail sent to Palin’s husband, Todd, who has been active in policy and political discussions. The state quoted a price of $11,000 for all the e-mails sought by msnbc.com, which apparently won’t be available until after the election.
To respond to those requests, the state is pulling together all the e-mails sent or received by 51 employees, including Palin, her senior staff, members of the Cabinet, the governor’s assistants and schedulers, and key staff involved with the pipeline proposed to bring natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope, the governor’s office said Thursday. It sought the attorney general’s approval to delay the search of the e-mails until mid-November. Later Thursday, the attorney general, Talis J. Colberg, sent the requestors a letter offering them a chance to be heard before he rules on that request.
News organizations have often claimed that the fees are used as a tollbooth to discourage requests, and that requests are delayed until interest in a public issue or candidate has long passed.
Federal law is more favorable. The federal Freedom of Information Act will change in January to penalize agencies for delay. After January, if an agency takes more than 20 days to respond to a request, it can’t charge any duplication fees to individual requestors.
[Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that helps journalists obtain public records said,] “Most judges are interpreting the laws that if you use your private e-mail for state business, that’s a public record.
“Many public officials thought e-mail was more like a phone call, but it’s more like a letter. You type those words, those are like documents. It doesn’t matter if you used a piece of paper from your home or stationery from your office. The form doesn’t matter.”