ANCHORAGE - Moments after Gov. Sarah Palin's first speech as Republican John McCain's running mate, she sat with her kids backstage, thumbing one of the two BlackBerrys that are always with her. You can see them in photographs from that day on the campaign blog of one of McCain's daughters.
The tech-savvy governor has one of the devices (which allow users to read and send e-mails) for state business and another for personal matters, but those worlds intertwine.
Palin routinely uses a private Yahoo e-mail account to conduct state business. Others in the governor's office sometimes use personal e-mail accounts, too.
The practice raises questions about backdoor secrecy in an administration that vowed during the 2006 campaign to be "open and transparent."
Even before the McCain campaign plucked Palin from Alaska, a controversy was brewing over e-mails in the governor's office. Was the administration trying to get around the public records law through broad exemptions or private e-mail accounts?
Activists, still fighting to obtain hundreds of e-mails that were withheld from public records requests earlier this year, say that's what it looks like.
The governor's Yahoo account is "the most nonsensical, inane thing I've ever heard of," said Andree McLeod, who is appealing the administration's decision to withhold e-mails.
"The governor sets the tone and the tone that has been set by this governor is beyond the pale," McLeod said. "Common sense tells you to use an official state e-mail account for official state business."
Palin, busy with the vice presidential campaign, did not respond to requests for comment or answer an e-mail sent to her Yahoo account. The Washington Post included Palin's Yahoo e-mail address in a recent story, so she may not be using that one anymore.
Her staff says the governor is open - within reason and within the law.
She is allowed to keep e-mails confidential if they fall into certain categories, such as "deliberative process," said her press secretary, Bill McAllister.
And, he said later, she appropriately uses her personal Yahoo account for political activities.
"I don't hear any public clamor for access to internal communications of the governor's office," McAllister said. "I know there are some people out there blogging and talking who would like to embarrass the governor by taking an internal communication and spinning it in some fashion."
State lawyers say that the governor's e-mails about public business should be treated like any other public record, even if she's sent them through a private account such as Yahoo.
Some of her aides also routinely use Yahoo, but even messages sent from one private account to another should be public, if they concern public business, said Dave Jones, an assistant attorney general.
"The difficulty is finding out they exist," Jones said.
It's a new twist on an old problem: How to keep an eye on the government. And Palin's expected absences from Alaska for the presidential campaign add urgency to the debate. Is she going to be running the state long-distance on her BlackBerry?
Some experts on open government say officials around the country escape scrutiny by either quickly deleting e-mails or using private accounts, as Palin has done.
"Where you've got a governor apparently using a Yahoo account for state business, that's kind of a complete inversion of what ought to be happening in terms of public records," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and a Missouri journalism associate professor.
"E-mail that's public business ought to be done on public accounts that can become public record," he said.
Just how much of the state's business does Palin conduct through her BlackBerrys? Her chief of staff didn't respond to that question. But she often is glued to her devices.
Her Yahoo e-mails got the attention of political activists Zane Henning, a Wasilla resident and North Slope worker, and McLeod, a former legislative staffer and Republican who has run for state House and mayor.
In response to similar but separate public records requests, McLeod and Henning this summer received four banker boxes of e-mail and telephone records for two Palin aides: Frank Bailey and Ivy Frye. Henning was operating on behalf of the Valley group Last Frontier Foundation, which lists property rights and public records as among its core issues on its Web site.
"I think that it's total hypocrisy from what she stood for at the beginning of her campaign," Henning said. "Because she campaigned on open government, and she knew that using a private e-mail account would take it and basically hide stuff that people couldn't see."
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