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Rough sledding

Politics | Intense scrutiny of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may have prompted her resignation, but it isn't likely to go away

Issue: "Hurtling toward havoc," Aug. 1, 2009

Andree McLeod once seemed an unlikely force to help drive Gov. Sarah Palin to quit her post as Alaska's top official: The Anchorage resident is a Republican and one-time Palin ally who first scored local headlines in the mid-1990s when she fought city hall over the right to sell falafels from a sidewalk cart.

But McLeod soon turned into a Palin watchdog: She's filed at least five of the 20 ethics complaints leveled against Palin and her staff since 2006. State officials have dismissed nearly all 20 of the claims. At least four are pending.

Palin says McLeod's angst comes from her failure to secure a job in Palin's administration, but McLeod says her efforts are about government accountability, not a job refusal. The activist has also obtained boxes of public records through the Alaska Public Records Act, according to the Anchorage Daily News, but she isn't alone: Media outlets and other individuals have filed at least 238 such requests, mostly since Palin burst onto the national scene nearly a year ago as the Republican vice presidential nominee.

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The governor cited the drain of complaints and records requests when she delivered a bombshell announcement on July 3: Palin said she would step down from her governor's post on July 26, nearly 17 months before the end of her term-and 11 months after she burst onto the national stage as the surprise presidential running mate of Sen. John McCain. The governor said the "politics of personal destruction" had crippled her ability to do her job.

As confounded political observers ponder Palin's future, it's worth examining what led the governor to quit. Among other factors, Palin cited the crush of two things she championed as a governor and as a vice presidential candidate: ethics reform and public transparency. And it's worth noting who squeezed hardest: not just the "mainstream media elite" Palin often chides, but also ordinary citizens in Palin's backyard.

The episode raises a central question about politics and public disclosure: Do citizens and the media abuse their right to public information and ethics complaints, or is heightened scrutiny the price of heightened exposure?

In her resignation speech, Palin decried the mounting public information requests that she said swamped her office: "The state has wasted thousands of hours of your time and shelled out some 2 million of your dollars to respond to opposition research."

According to Alaska law, anyone can request a host of public records, and the state is obligated to reply. (Some records are exempt: For example, records protected by executive privilege or privacy laws.)

The Alaska law is a state version of the national Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that covers public requests for federal records. When Congress enacted FOIA in 1966, media outlets and individual citizens began using the law to research federal offices, and they often uncovered scandal: A group of George Washington University (GWU) students using FOIA requests helped uncover corruption that led to the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973.

Like many state records laws, FOIA exempts some sensitive records like national security information. But unlike some state laws, FOIA requests don't require a strict response time from federal agencies. Some agencies-like the U.S. State Department-specify that "whenever possible" they will furnish records within 20 days, but a first-come-first-served system often means massive backlogs: Last year, researchers at GWU estimated the number of pending FOIA requests at 200,000.

Though state laws covering public records vary, timelines are often tighter at local levels: When the Illinois state Senate revamped its public records law in June, lawmakers shortened response time for records requests from seven to five business days, though officials can request extensions. They also simplified the process for filing requests and established civil penalties between $2,500 and $5,000 for agencies that fail to respond properly.

The Illinois revisions came in the wake of the state's scorching scandal over its disgraced former governor, Rod Blagojevich: Federal officials arrested Blagojevich on charges that he tried to sell former Sen. Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. He denied the charges, but the controversy deepened the corruption scandals that have long plagued Illinois government.

Andy Shaw heads the Chicago-based Better Government Association (BGA), a nonpartisan watchdog group that advocates government transparency across the country. Shaw-a former reporter in Chicago-said the state's revisions are key to fighting a "crisis at all levels" in Illinois: "Transparency is the backbone to good government."

Shaw says that applies in Alaska too, where public records requests mounted over the last year as Palin's popularity grew. Linda Perez, the governor's administrative director, told the Daily News that her office has seen 238 requests since 2006, and that 189 of those poured in after Palin became a vice presidential candidate last August. During the last governor's tenure, Perez says 109 requests came in over four years.

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