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Rough sledding

"Rough sledding" Continued...

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

Perez said most requests come from state and national media, though some have come from individuals seeking information for ethics complaints. Some requests can take weeks or months to process. Perez said the governor's office estimates that staff members have spent some 5,773 hours responding to records requests and ethics complaints, representing about $415,000 in personnel time.

But obtaining public records can grow costly too. Federal law allows agencies to charge fees for document search and duplication, and officials may ask requesters how much they're willing to pay when filing a request.Under Alaska law fees may be charged for search, duplication, and review of documents. A heavy volume can carry a heavy price tag: When the Associated Press asked the governor's office for all state emails sent to Todd Palin, the office quoted a staggering price for the service: $15 million. Officials estimated it would cost $960.31 to search and review each email account for 16,000 employees. The quote didn't include copying costs.

Shaw from BGA acknowledges that government offices can face an overload of records requests, especially from citizens: "You do run the risk of a lot of frivolous FOIAs and a lot of people with axes to grind and games to play and time on their hands who could inundate government with a lot of FOIAs of a nonsensical nature."

But while Shaw also acknowledges that many FOIA requests are "fishing expeditions," he insists that access to public records is critical: "Much of the best investigative reporting begins with a hunch or a tip or an idea, and you file a FOIA and see what happens."

Shaw isn't sympathetic to Palin's complaints about records requests, saying that 280 inquiries over two years don't sound like burdensome numbers. And Shaw says running for national office naturally draws national attention: "She should have known full well-and probably did-that her life would become an open book, and so would her government."

Becoming an open book was part of Palin's pitch during her successful 2006 gubernatorial run. She unseated Republican Frank Murkowski-a governor known for his lack of transparency-and promised ethics reform. Palin delivered: She led legislative efforts to rewrite ethics laws in 2007, producing tougher standards of accountability for state officials.

Nearly two years later, Palin said she still supports the reform, but she added: "The ethics law that I championed became [opponents'] weapon of choice over the past nine months."

Mike Nizich, Palin's chief of staff, reports 20 ethics complaints against the governor or her staff since 2006 and says many of the complaints are frivolous. For example, Linda Kellen Biegel, a Democratic blogger, complained that Palin wore a coat with the snowmobile logo of Arctic Cat, which sponsored the governor's husband, Todd Palin, in the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race. The complaint called that a conflict of interest. But a personnel board dismissed the complaint, saying most Alaskans wear coats with logos.

Officials also dismissed a Jan. 12 complaint filed under the name Edna Birch-a popular character on a British soap opera. Palin's attorney said officials could find no one by that name living in Alaska.

But some complaints were more serious. After a legislative investigation concluded that Palin violated a state ethics law in handling the dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, the governor asked for another review: An attorney hired by a state personnel board said Palin did not violate ethics laws.

A separate complaint contended that Palin inappropriately charged the state for some of her children's travel to state functions. A board found no wrongdoing, but Palin did agree to reimburse the state some $10,000 for a handful of trips.

Thomas Van Flein, Palin's private attorney, says the governor also owes some $500,000 for legal fees associated with ethics complaints. Van Flein says a state official could not use state attorneys for personal defense against abuse-of-power allegations, though the state may reimburse Palin for costs associated with dismissed claims.

In the meantime, Alaskan Kristan Cheryl Cole set up a fund to help cover Palin's legal expenses, soliciting maximum donations of $150. For now, Palin can't access the money: Another ethics complaint contends the fund is inappropriate.

Most of the ethics complaints have come from citizens in Alaska, like McLeod, who filed another complaint after the governor announced her resignation. Palin responded with a Twitter post that indirectly referenced McLeod: "Are these constant, wasteful, thumped-up ethics charges result of not caving when the filer begged for a job?"

McLeod says no: "The public records laws and the ethics complaints are the tools in place for citizens to discover the inner workings of their government and address the wrongdoing of their public officials."

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