Gov. Sarah Palin, who rose to political prominence with a mantra of "open and transparent government," is being accused of obstructing state public records laws, and her administration is charging the public up to $960 to search a single state e-mail account.
The lawyer for Andree McLeod, a self-described Republican watchdog, filed a lawsuit against the governor last week asking the Anchorage Superior Court to order Palin and her staff to stop conducting state business on private e-mail accounts and to preserve the state records on those accounts.
"The issue here is Sarah Palin obeying the law," said McLeod in a phone interview. "It seems as if the governor seems to think that she doesn't have to follow the rules of law."
Palin, who is Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, regularly used a private Yahoo account to conduct state business.
McLeod's lawsuit says state laws are clear: Palin and her staff are obligated to use a state-sponsored e-mail address to conduct state business that would properly preserve and protect public records.
The governor's failure to do so, according to the lawsuit, has jeopardized the public's right to monitor its government.
As proof, McLeod's lawyer, Anchorage attorney Don Mitchell, cites in court filings the fact that one of Palin's private accounts was recently hacked into and some if its contents were widely circulated on the Internet. That episode proved that Palin's use of private e-mail risked "the destruction" and "the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information contained in public records," Mitchell said.
Palin's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow declined in an e-mail to answer questions about the lawsuit or why the governor used private e-mail for state business, saying only that "any e-mail from a private account to a state account containing (state) business related items is considered a public record."
In the lawsuit, Mitchell compared Palin's administration to President George W. Bush's administration, saying they both used "subterfuge" in attempts to "evade" similar laws.
A 2007 legislative report found that more than 80 aides to Bush, including Karl Rove, used private e-mail addresses to conduct official business, a possible violation of federal law.
Mitchell added that the recent decision by a federal court to force Vice President Dick Cheney to preserve some of his official records bolstered McLeod's legal argument.
No date has been set for a hearing in McLeod's lawsuit. But even if a judge does rule that Palin and her staff have to preserve private e-mails and make them available to the public, the cost of obtaining those documents will be high.
In August, the union that represents the Alaska State Troopers filed a public records request with the governor's office seeking e-mails that discussed the union or its dealings.
The state said such a search would cost nearly $90,000 because it involved nearly 90 state e-mail accounts.
By the state's calculation, it takes up to 13 hours to do a thorough search of a single staff member's e-mail address. At a rate of $73.87 an hour, the total to search one state account comes to $960.31. Those costs don't include copying fees.
The governor's administrative director, Linda Perez, said the number of public requests filed in her office has risen dramatically since Palin was tapped as McCain's VP. She said most of the requests have come from new organizations. The Juneau Empire also has filed a number of requests in recent weeks.
Department of Administration Deputy Commissioner Kevin Brooks, who supervises the tech department that's responsible for conducting e-mail record searches, said the cost is so high because the state stores an enormous amount of data and it is time-consuming to search through it all.
He said his department is looking for solutions to cut down the costs of records requests, including buying faster computers and better software.
Perez has the authority, under state law, to grant fee waivers or reductions if they are in the public's interest. The Empire filed a request for a fee waiver or reduction, which Perez denied, citing state law that requires her to waive or reduce fees uniformly and saying that the state can't afford to cover the costs of the pricey searches.
Charging nearly $1,000 to search a single e-mail address violates the spirit of the Alaska's open records law, according to Juneau attorney Doug Mertz, who has filed many requests of his own over the years.
"In order to give the law its proper effect, an agency would be hard pressed not to grant a waiver or a reduction in those costs," Mertz said.
Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or firstname.lastname@example.org.