Attorney general tightens grip on records

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2008

Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg is clamping down on how the state shares information with the public.

He's ordered state commissioners to get the approval of his agency, the Department of Law, before answering public records requests.

Since Gov. Sarah Palin was picked to be the Republican vice presidential candidate, state agencies have been flooded with records requests.

In a Sept. 26 letter from Colberg to various state commissioners, which was obtained Friday by the Empire, Colberg wrote that the large number of requests necessitated his office's intervention to make sure that any of the governor's privileges to withhold documents weren't being mistakenly waved.

"Because we have received so many records requests, it may be tempting to take shortcuts in responding to those requests, simply to get the responses out," said Colberg, a Palin appointee. "We must be careful not to take shortcuts."

In the past, state agencies have been free to respond on their own - sometimes handing over documents immediately - to any public records request that didn't require a legal opinion as to whether it involved privileged information.

But Colberg's order was specific.

"The only exception to this requirement is when the Department of Law has already approved disclosure of the identical records in response to a prior request, he said, writing the words "only" and "identical" in bold.

Colberg did not respond to requests to comment about the new policy, but Assistant Attorney General David Jones said the Department of Law sent the e-mail because it wants "state agencies to be consistent in responding to records requests."

"To my knowledge, we had never before experienced such a massive number of public records request to so many state agencies with so much potential for overlapping responses," Jones said in an e-mail to the Empire. "So I'm not sure that the same need ever arose before."

Jones did not answer questions about how much extra work the policy meant for the Department of Law nor how much extra time the new policy would add to public records requests.

First Amendment lawyer John McKay said he doesn't know yet what the new ruling's effect will be.

"If the attorney general is trying to help expedite the flow of information by making sure that everybody is not reinventing the wheel about some of these things, that would be great," McKay said. "If it's something that delays what would otherwise be the ordinary processing of requests and satisfying requests, then obviously it's not good."

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail

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