Politics & Government

Palin critics: No regrets for using law to hold her accountable

Gov. Sarah Palin at the family's setnet site near Nushagak, Alaska, July 6, 2007. Her daughter Piper stands near the stern.
Gov. Sarah Palin at the family's setnet site near Nushagak, Alaska, July 6, 2007. Her daughter Piper stands near the stern. Sean Cockerham / Anchorage Daily News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — In her resignation speech last week, Gov. Sarah Palin decried the "silly accusations" from critics and the thousands of hours "wasted" by her and other state officials in filling information requests.

But two of Palin's more prolific critics say that public records laws and the ethics complaint process were used by them as designed — as a way for citizens to watchdog their government and keep abuses in check.

Palin didn't give a direct reason for quitting office 17 months before the end of her term, fueling widespread speculation about what was on her mind.

But before she told reporters why she had summoned them to Wasilla on July 3 –the actual news of her impending departure came 12 minutes and 18 seconds into her statement – she spent nearly a minute denouncing the ethics complaints and massive public records requests that have dogged her administration, an issue of obvious importance to her.

"Every one of these – all 15 of the ethics complaints – have been dismissed," Palin asserted. She didn't mention that she had to reimburse the state more than $8,000 for her children's air travel to settle one, and that at least some others dealt with substantial policy questions, like accusations that the governor's staff was engaging in partisan political activity.

Even as Palin assumes lame duck status till she formally leaves office July 26, the complaints continue. On Monday, Wasilla resident and North Slope worker Zane Henning said he would file his second complaint against Palin, charging her with inappropriately collecting a state travel allowance while living in her home in Wasilla.

An earlier Henning complaint was dismissed in March and is one of those that Palin has cited as frivolous. Henning had charged that an interview she gave with national reporters in her Juneau office after her vice presidential run was essentially a political event and shouldn't have used state resources.

In a prepared statement Monday, Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said that while Palin respects Alaska's ethics laws, "she does not support its abuse," Leighow said. "A handful of complainants are misusing the process to harass public officials."

When Palin points to her critics, her finger has often landed on Andree McLeod, an Anchorage activist and one-time ally of Palin's efforts to reform the state Republican Party. Since Palin and McLeod parted company after Palin's 2006 election, McLeod has obtained boxes of public records and is seeking more, and has filed four ethics complaints and two lawsuits against Palin and her administration.

Anyone around Anchorage in the mid-1990s would remember McLeod as the determined vendor who fought City Hall when it ruled she couldn't sell falafels from a sidewalk stand, even as hot-dog carts proliferated. Her efforts over some two years included a quixotic campaign for mayor in 1997.

"I think that the only mechanisms available to citizens to discover how their government is running is through the public records act," McLeod said last weekend between interviews from national reporters and a visit to her home by a CBS network news crew. "And the only mechanisms available to citizens to address their government for any wrongdoings is the Alaska ethics act. And I exercise my rights under both of those acts to figure out what Sarah Palin and her administration was up to and to redress the wrongdoings of Sarah Palin and her administration's conduct."

McLeod and Palin once worked together, before Palin was governor, to try to diminish the clout of Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich. McLeod later sought a job in Palin's administration, but wasn't hired. That has nothing to do with her efforts, she said.

McLeod said her public information requests were based on tips or other information she received. For instance, she said, she heard from fellow Republicans that members of Palin's administration continued to pressure party members to oust Ruedrich, using state e-mail, telephones and other resources. So she filed an information request for all the e-mails from two Palin administration officials "to see whether there were partisan political activities being conducted using state time and resources."

When she began to get records back last year, she didn't discover incriminating evidence about political activity, but found something else that led her to dig more.

"It's like going fishing and getting bycatch," she said. "I was looking for salmon, I found a 400-pound halibut." That was the discovery, she said, that members of the Palin administration were conducting state business using private Yahoo accounts, not state e-mail accounts. She was concerned that by using Yahoo, e-mail messages about public policy would be beyond the reach of a public-records request, since they would not exist on state computers.

McLeod is now suing the state to force the administration to abandon the use of outside e-mail accounts. The case is pending, as is a second, in which she's suing to get full disclosure of e-mails about state business that were sent or received by Palin's husband, Todd, the "shadow governor."

McLeod has brought many more public records requests. Her latest, brought last week, seeks any formal advice Palin received from the attorney general or other officials about continuing to serve as governor at the same time she campaigned for vice president.

Last month, the attorney general's office dismissed an ethics complaint brought by McLeod against Kris Perry, the official in charge of Palin's Anchorage office. McLeod said Perry, who accompanied Palin during the vice presidential campaign, should have taken leave. In dismissing the complaint, the state said Perry stayed on the payroll because she conducted state business on the trail.

Linda Kellen Biegle, who blogs as "Celtic Diva," has also been a records seeker and has filed a losing ethics complaint.

Biegle said Palin should stop complaining about citizens who seek public records. As a former federal employee herself for 15 years, Biegle fulfilled numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. Though they weren't always the most pleasant tasks – she'd give the job to a summer intern if one was around – they were part of working for the government.

Biegle brought the ethics complaint against Palin for wearing Arctic Cat gear – the sponsor for her husband's Iron Dog team.

That complaint, which was dismissed, was brought up by Palin in her speech Friday.

"Over the past nine months I've been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations – such as holding a fish in a photograph, or wearing a jacket with a logo on it, and answering reporters' questions," Palin said.

But Biegle said she was stunned after the Iron Dog, seeing Palin on TV "wearing that whole full body Arctic Cat regalia" and thought how, as a federal employee, she could never do that on the job.

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