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Is Alaska Gov. Parnell's office texting to avoid disclosure laws?

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

The Anchorage Daily News reports that Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration apparently likes to send text messages as a way to circumvent state public disclosure laws.

The story cites Russ Kelly, Parnell’s former associate director of his Washington, D.C., office, as saying he was told not to use state email to criticize a commissioner because it might be subject to public records requests. Kelly said he was told texting was a way around that.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow denied to the newspaper that texts were a way around disclosure. She told the Daily News that the “governor's office does not have a practice of putting sensitive information in text messages to avoid public records requests.”

The email used as an example in the story was about Dan Sullivan, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources -- a powerful agency that is constantly trying to promote development of Alaska's natural resources to anybody that will listen. The Daily News reports that Kelly wrote in an email that he thought Sullivan was “ineffective” when he traveled to D.C. to educate politicians about state energy issues.

According to Kelly, Cindy Sims, Parnell’s deputy chief of staff, told him not to send such emails because they are subject to public records requests. Kelly was instead told to text his concerns.

“'Well it's just not something that should have been in writing; why do you think we text?” Kelly said Sims told him.

Mike Nizich, Parnell’s chief of staff, was also unhappy about the email, according to the Daily News.

Parnell was former Gov. Sarah Palin’s lieutenant governor and was handed her job after Palin abruptly resigned in mid-2009. He successfully ran for governor in 2010.

He as much as Palin knows a thing or two about concerns with public disclosure.

As Palin watchers recall, after U.S. Sen. John McCain picked her for his vice presidential running-mate in 2008, the Palin administration was flooded with public records requests from media all over the world.

The Palin administration was not very quick in fulfilling those requests, though eventually most of the emails she sent and received as governor were released to the public. Many of them, however, were highly redacted, and many of those redactions happened after she left office and when Parnell was governor.

The emails that Parnell sent while serving in the Palin administration were especially redacted.

Given the scrutiny the Palin administration received during that time, it makes sense that Parnell and his people are sensitive to public records requests. Leighow, who was one of Palin’s spokespersons, lived through the chaos of the requests, as did Nizich, who was also Palin’s chief of staff.

The Daily News tried but failed to obtain text messages sent by members of Parnell’s staff during the heated oil tax debate during the Alaska legislative session earlier this year. The little information the paper did receive shows that Sims and Nizich were often texting during the debate. Those texts have since been erased.

So much for transparent government.

Contact Amanda Coyne at  amanda@alaskadispatch.com