Sarah Palin resigned more than a week ago but a state watchdog agency and the courts are still sorting out issues left over from her time as governor.
In one lingering issue, the Alaska Public Offices Commission has refused Palin’s request to keep secret the discounts that come from her husband’s Arctic Cat sponsorship. APOC also said Palin needs to disclose all the gifts she received last year, rejecting her interpretation that she doesn’t need to until after she gets around to actually opening the gifts.
Palin has told APOC “there are boxes of unopened mail at this point, even mail that was delivered in 2008.”
Another question also pending is whether private e-mail accounts can be used for state business, a hot-button issue for a time under Palin. A judge on Tuesday heard arguments in a lawsuit by Anchorage activist Andree McLeod, who is seeking to ban the practice and is arguing it could hide information the public has a fundamental right to see.
The state maintains that Alaska’s public records law doesn’t prohibit state employees from communicating about official business through private e-mail. The practice must be allowed unless the law is changed, Assistant Attorney General Mike Mitchell told Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack Smith.
During her first years as governor, Palin relied on private Yahoo e-mail accounts. Some of her top aides also relied on private accounts, not the state e-mail system.
McLeod discovered Palin’s Yahoo habit when she received copies of some of the e-mails through a public records request. Those e-mails had been sent to state accounts, but if Palin and her aides were e-mailing from one private account to another, the public might never know about the communications, McLeod said after the hearing.
The practice raised questions about backdoor secrecy even before Palin ran for vice president and it drew national attention during the campaign.
Palin’s Yahoo accounts were canceled in September after a hacker broke into one, posting screen shots and e-mail messages onto a publicly available Web site.
“This is not something between Andree McLeod and former Gov. Palin. This is a very serious public policy issue,” McLeod’s lawyer, Don Mitchell, told the judge Tuesday.
The heart of the case is whether private e-mails obstruct the public’s right to public information, Mitchell said.
Mike Mitchell, arguing for the state, said many e-mails aren’t public records anyway because they are too trivial. McLeod is trying to expand the definition of a public record, and not just for the governor’s office, he said.
“This interpretation would have to apply to all branches, all agencies in the executive branch of state government. It would ultimately have to apply to the Legislature and the Legislature’s staff, and it would have to apply to the court system and the court system’s staff,” Mike Mitchell said.
Last week, new Gov. Sean Parnell said private e-mails aren’t an issue for him. He’s made it a habit to use his state account. Anyway, e-mails about state business are subject to public records laws even if they are generated on private accounts, he said.
After McLeod won a preliminary ruling in the case last year, Palin chief of staff Michael Nizich sent a directive to the governor’s staff members to copy their state account on any e-mail “that in any way relates to or touches on state business.”
Still, absent an executive order from Parnell, McLeod is seeking a court ruling to ban the governor’s office from using private e-mail.
“What we’re doing here is to make sure that all public business is done on protected and secure state e-mail systems,” she said.
Smith said it would take him a few weeks to rule.
McLeod, who has had multiple ethics complaints against Palin dismissed, is the same person who brought the Arctic Cat sponsorship issue to APOC, the state’s quasi-independent watchdog agency.
APOC is giving Palin until Aug. 17 to make public “information related to the dollar amount of the discounts from Arctic Cat,” as well as any gifts received in 2008 that she has not reported, said Holly Hill, the agency’s director. Hill found that the state law Palin cited in arguing for an exemption from the Arctic Cat disclosure “only protects information submitted under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, and does not apply in this matter.”
Palin’s lawyer, Tom Van Flein, did not respond this week to questions about APOC’s decision.
Arctic Cat sponsors Palin’s husband, Todd, in the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmachine race. The governor argued in June that the family should not have to make the discounts public. Palin said her husband is allowed to buy a snowmachine at the manufacturer’s cost, which she said is proprietary information.
“Todd Palin is entitled to discounts on purchases (as he has received the last 16 years as an Iron Dog racer.) However, according to the terms of his sponsorship agreement, the exact amount of the discount is confidential as a proprietary trade secret. … Public disclosure of this information is expressly prohibited by the sponsorship agreement. This would also apply to any discounts offered on wear,” Palin wrote to the APOC officials in June.
Arctic Cat wear has been a high-profile issue for the Palins. Blogger Linda Kellen Biegel filed an ethics complaint against Palin in March for wearing Arctic Cat logowear at the Iron Dog, calling her a “walking billboard” using her position as governor to enrich herself. The state personnel board’s investigator dismissed the complaint. But it clearly rankled Palin and she talked of it derisively on several occasions, even bringing it up during the speech announcing her plan to resign.
Sean Cockerham & Lisa Demer
Anchorage Daily News