THE E-MAILS: Read e-mails obtained by Alaska Dispatch that were sent on then-Gov. Sarah Palin's personal Yahoo account: Palin-emails
COMING MONDAY NIGHT: In Part II, we look at what Palin's personal e-mails tell us about her first months in office.
PART I: Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor who made open and transparent government the foundation of her rapid climb to national fame, routinely used her personal e-mail instead of a state account to manage official business. That much has been widely reported since September 2008, when a college student broke into her Yahoo account, revealing messages sent and received by Palin regarding state business. The reasons behind this practice have never been fully explained by the former governor.
Within three months of being elected governor, Palin recognized that her state-issued e-mail account could be open to public scrutiny, which would allow average Alaskans access to information she wanted kept private. Early in her term, Palin sent an e-mail to family and friends, including her most trusted advisers, telling them to use her Yahoo account for private or confidential matters because "everyone and their mother will be able to read emails that arrive via that state address." As her short term as governor unfolded, Palin would be seen around Alaska sporting two BlackBerrys, one used for state business, the other supposedly for personal matters -- and, presumably, information she did not want "everyone and their mother" reading.
E-mails written by Palin in the early months of her term show that she wished to keep some state matters out of the public eye by using her own personal e-mail account. Printed copies of the e-mails were provided to Alaska Dispatch by a source, who wished to remain anonymous, as an example of Palin's practice of conducting state business on her personal account.
In a Feb. 2, 2007 e-mail, Palin told her inner circle, including family members, advisors and her chief of staff, that "My NEW personal/private/confidential account will now be: firstname.lastname@example.org All other people will be emailing me through the state system at email@example.com and that is NOT a confidential/private account so -- warning -- everyone and their mother will be able to read emails that arrive via that state address."Thomas Van Flein, Palin's lawyer, said in an an e-mail interview that the then-governor's notice to friends and family to separate state and personal business was completely appropriate. "The governor and others in state government are required to segregate personal or partisan communications from state business communications," van Flein said. "The only way to do this is by using private email and private cell phones."
Palin may have been particularly sensitive to the separation between personal and private because of her experience at the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where she filed an ethics complaint after witnessing AOGCC regulator and state Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich use state resources to conduct party business. But that doesn't explain why Palin chose to carry state business over into her personal e-mail. Earlier e-mails show Palin had already been using a Yahoo account -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- to conduct official business, including discussing political appointments and administration policy. What's not clear is why she chose to handle those state matters via private e-mail, or how public records laws apply to state business conducted via personal e-mail accounts.
Although Palin is out of office and Gov. Sean Parnell has clarified his take on the state's e-mail policy, some lawmakers remain concerned that the e-mail rules remain murky and should be changed. Rep. Mike Doogan, an Anchorage Democrat, introduced a bill in March that would ban electronic communications on public business, by public officials, on private e-mail systems. House Bill 195 was referred to State Affairs and Judiciary committees, but never got a hearing.
"The silence has been deafening, actually," Doogan said, adding that he wasn't sure why the bill never gained momentum. "I'm going to make another run at it when we get to Juneau."
Rep. Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks Republican and head of the House Judiciary Committee, says bills dealing with private e-mail accounts may not get much support from him.
"If you divorce yourself from (Palin), is this really a burning issue for the good of 700,000 people? To me, it's not," Ramras said. "If it is a burning priority for other committee members, as a courtesy we'll certainly have a hearing."
Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Legislature might be the right place to resolve the issue.
"The (current) governor has taken steps to direct his people to conduct their business through official channels, which is appropriate," French said. "It's not clear whether it's a continuing problem."
A governor using his or her personal e-mail account isn't illegal, but the e-mail Palin sent her inner circle early in her tenure suggests she understood the difference between her state and personal accounts. Palin addressed the Feb. 2, 2007 e-mail to "Friends/Family." Among those who received her note were her new attorney general, chief of staff and a few advisors, including John Bitney and Ivy Frye.
Earlier e-mails sent during the second month of the Palin administration show then-Gov. Palin discussing state business on her personal Yahoo account. Among the examples:
-- A Jan. 13, 2007, e-mail Palin sent to then-Chief of Staff Mike Tibbles' personal account (and copied to others in her inner circle) discussing candidates for various state jobs. "I know Ryan Colgan bugs folks," Palin wrote, "but he is supportive and wants a job so he can help. Why not find a spot for him somewhere in the 17,000 state employee group?" She went on to criticize Ron Miller, who had headed the Alaska Industrial Export and Development Authority under Gov. Frank Murkowski: "Ron Miller and others who made very poor decisions must be replaced with more sensible Alaskans who will not squander public funds. My discussions with Andrew (Halcro) sure has convinced me (as I was convinced after 10 months on the trail with him) that he agrees with me that we MUST clean up state government." Halcro ran against Palin in the 2006 gubernatorial election as an independent. Weeks after this e-mail, he and Palin had a falling out and Halcro began criticizing the governor on his blog, eventually breaking the so-called Troopergate scandal that embroiled Palin as she leaped to the national stage in late summer 2008.
-- A Jan. 28, 2007, e-mail from Palin's personal account went out to a list of high-level staff and commissioners' state e-mails encouraging them to speak freely to the press. The note was in response to an item in the Anchorage Daily News' Alaska Ear about whether members of her administration were banned from speaking to the media. "I have NEVER banned any of our team members from voicing opinions on anything," she told her commissioners and others.
-- On Jan. 30, 2007, Palin sent an e-mail from her Yahoo account to several of her advisors' personal accounts to discuss candidates for Fish and Game Board appointments, including one candidate who she described as a "strange dude" who "sounds pretty crazy."
Members of Palin's inner circle copied on the e-mails in question were unavailable for comment or opted not to comment.
These e-mails are the sort that Andree McLeod, a citizen activist in Anchorage, is trying to have released under public records law. State Superior Court Judge Patrick McKay is considering McLeod's request for release of private e-mails about state business under the state's public records law. That case has raised a key question: As state law stands now, should personal e-mails by state employees be treated as public records?
McKay heard legal arguments on McLeod's request before Christmas and is now considering the matter. McLeod's attorney, Don Mitchell, contends Palin's e-mails are official state records and subject to public disclosure, even if sent on personal accounts. The state argues that archiving e-mails is a policy question for lawmakers, and not a matter addressed by current public record laws.
Since taking office in July, when Palin abruptly resigned, Parnell has directed state employees, including himself, to use the state e-mail system "whenever feasible, and to copy messages related to state business to our state accounts whenever it is not," Department of Law spokesman Bill McAllister says.
Contact Rena Delbridge at rena_alaskadispatch.com.