Before Sarah Palin became a political pundit, reality TV star and household name, she did a whole lot of things in Alaska that raised eyebrows once she became a vice presidential nominee. Reporters began exploring some of those things at the time and filing public records requests to more fully explore her record.
Now, three years later, and after much wrangling with the State of Alaska, we’re finally getting 24,199 pages of emails from Sarah Palin’s time as governor. They’re going to be released—on paper—this afternoon.
Here's some quick background on the emails and suggestions on what to look for. We’re also going to be updating this post, highlighting interesting nuggets, if any, that people come across.
So… where are these emails from?
The emails are from the beginning of 2007 to September 2008. That covers most—but not all—of Palin’s tenure, which was from December 2006 to when she resigned in mid-2009.
ProPublica filed a public records request for the emails in fall 2008 and teamed up with Mother Jones and msnbc.com when we realized they had done the same. The state ultimately got enough requests that it lumped all of them together, and after many deadline extensions—Alaska state agencies are supposed to get 10 days to fulfill a request, but they can request extensions—it’s releasing the documents today.
Why are they only being released now?
For starters, Sarah Palin didn’t abide by transparency best-practices.
She used a number of private email accounts to conduct state business, complicating the process of sorting out which emails were truly private and which should be a matter of public record. (After the fact, in 2009, the State of Alaska announced a new email policy for executive branch employees: “State business must be conducted through the state email system whenever feasible. In instances where private emails are used, employees must send copies of emails to their state account.”)
Then there was the matter of cost. Alaska at one point quoted prices as high as $15 million for some of the emails. The price for the emails being released today ended up being $725 per news organization.
And, of course, there was lots of lawyering that had to be done, and the state decided to withhold some documents and redact others. According to the state of Alaska, that’s why the emails are now on paper. The state said it didn’t have the technology to redact the emails electronically.
Wait, they’re on paper?
Yes. The emails, which presumably could fit on a few discs, now fit in six boxes and weigh 250 pounds per set. Journalists have trekked to Juneau to pick up them up. (Mother Jones notes that the state is helpfully lending journalists “hand trucks” for hauling the boxes out.)
Alaska’s decision to provide only paper copies has been puzzling. While nothing in the state’s public records law requires the state to provide records in electronic form, public agencies are “encouraged” to “make information available in usable electronic formats to the greatest extent feasible.” Though government agencies have fumbled on redactions in the past, software certainly exists to safely redact electronic data. (We do it all the time.)
Various news agencies have joined the scramble to sift through the documents and restore them to an electronic format. The Anchorage Daily News, ABC News, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Bloomberg News, CNN, CBS, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press have all jumped onboard with varying plans to scan and upload the documents for public consumption.
Also, Mother Jones and msnbc.com have teamed up with us to put up a full searchable archive quickly. (It’s using a service provided free of cost called Crivella West.)
What should we expect to find in them?
We’re not sure. Among the unknowns are how extensive the redactions will be. (Update: Here's a list of them.)
But here are some suggestions on what to look for. You may recall that as governor Palin was involved in a number of controversies that emerged after she was picked as John McCain’s running mate.
In what became known as “Troopergate,” Palin and her husband were accused of personally pressuring a state employee to fire a state trooper who went through an ugly divorce and child-custody battle with her sister. When he refused, he himself was fired. Palin has denied that she pressured anyone. (Here’s the background.) Look for more on this, or on anything she wrote about the Alaska legislature’s investigation into it.
Palin was also caught in a contradiction on a famed “Bridge to Nowhere” construction project. She campaigned for the governorship in favor of it, but as a vice presidential nominee touted her role in killing it. “Thanks, but no thanks” was how she characterized her response to Congress in regard to using federally earmarked funds on the bridge.
The project never really died, either—at least not in its entirety. As we reported at the time, Palin’s administration continued to pursue a road to nowhere—originally intended to be connected to the bridge—with the help of as much as $73 million in federal earmarked funds. Look for whether the emails say anything about that.
The emails also overlap briefly with her time as a Republican vice presidential nominee. Chances are slim, but they could be interesting if there’s information about the presidential campaign or observations to be made about emails sent in the run-up to her selection as McCain’s running mate.
Can I look through the emails too? And how should I share what I find?
Sure. A lot of news organizations are going to be putting bits and pieces of the emails online as the day goes on and even into the weekend.
The New York Times, Mother Jones and others have live updates going as they rifle through the documents. If there are items of interest, we’ll also be pulling together what people have found, so follow along and share what you find using the hashtag #palinemail on Twitter, or by leaving it in the comments below.
If nothing else, the emails are sure to make some pretty good fodder for the ProPublica Tumblr, so follow there too if you like.