A bit behind on the news, but news broke about a week ago that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s office is charging several news agencies $15 million for copies of e-mails. Both the Associated Press and MSNBC were quoted the same price for the e-mails. And, apparently, the charge does not include the copying cost, which is not quoted in the article. I know some states allow public agencies to charge up to 50 cents per page in copying costs.
How did they get to the $15 million price tag for the requests? From the MSNBC article:
When the Associated Press asked for all state e-mails sent to the governor’s husband, Todd Palin, her office said it would take up to six hours of a programmer’s time to assemble the e-mail of just a single state employee, then another two hours for “security” checks, and finally five hours to search the e-mail for whatever word or topic the requestor is seeking. At $73.87 an hour, that’s $960.31 for a single e-mail account. And there are 16,000 full-time state employees. The cost quoted to the AP: $15,364,960.
The e-mails also will need to be printed and not placed on a disc because some need to be redacted for personal information, according to the article.
The information won’t be released until weeks after the Nov. 4 election. It’s not surprising with the number of requests and how it’s been reported how Palin is using personal e-mail accounts for state business. It’ll take a lot of work to fill the requests.
Palin’s office is following the letter of the Alaskan Freedom of Information laws, but is it really embracing the spirit of it? By charging $15 million for a request, the government is basically blocking access to the files. Even large media organizations cannot afford the $15 million price tag, but what about the basic Alaskan resident who may want access? They certainly cannot afford the price tag.
The Alaskan law — much like many other state sunshine laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act — allows for officials to waive the fees when there is a case of public interest. Cases of public interest include academic work and for journalists. But the fees in this case are not being waived. Additionally, Palin’s people were not waiving the fees prior to her vice presidential presidency, according to the MSNBC article.
From the article:
Voice of the Times, a conservative online news site, was quoted a price of $1,250 in May to retrieve e-mails from the accounts of two top aides to the governor, Ivy Frye and Frank Bailey. “Please cancel my request for public records,” editor Paul Jenkins wrote to the governor’s administrator. “We have a limited budget here and paying $1,250 in fees for people who already are on the state payroll is ridiculous.” The newspaper announced this week it will shut down at the end of October for lack of money.
A weekly paper, the Anchorage Press, was told it would have to pay $6,500 for e-mails of Palin and three aides relating to the lieutenant governor. The request was withdrawn, with the newspaper offering the apology. “”Hi Linda – wow, that’s an expensive request I made,” reporter Brendan Joel Kelley wrote to state administrator Linda Perez. “In that case, I definitely don’t want to waste 60 hours of the state’s resources, whether we had the fee waived or not. Consider the request withdrawn. I had supposed/hoped that an electronic records request would be fairly simple.”
Cases like this just make it more difficult for anyone to have access to public documents. It’s a form of censorship on the press in some ways because the officials are saying with their actions they don’t like what the reporters are covering so are trying to prevent them from getting the information they need to complete their work.
And it’s not limited to Alaska and Palin’s administration. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt only turned over e-mails once three news organizations sued. His office’s officials had cited a fee of several thousand dollars. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine must turn over private e-mails after a judge ordered them open to access.
There is case law in one state that says such actions shouldn’t be tolerated. In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant sued when they were charged over $20 million for a database from the state Department of Public Safety. The Freedom of Information Commission and the trial court ruled the $20 million should be charged, following a strict interpretation of the law.
The Connecticut Supreme Court, however, ruled the decision should be reversed (link is to a pdf file of the ruling). From the ruling:
Were we to hold otherwise, the fee for the plaintiff’s request would be $20,375,000, a result that would have the practical effect of denying the plaintiff access to records that, by statute, must be made available to the public. Such a result would be inconsistent both with the act’s broad policy favoring the disclosure of information and with the well established canon of statutory construction “that those who promulgate statutes or rules do not intend to promulgate statutes or rules that lead to absurd consequences or bizarre results.”
In other words, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that any other decision would not have embraced the spirit of the state’s Freedom of Information law.
What’s too bad is that the reporters cannot do what I used to do when public officials tried to overcharge me for documents. Most Westport departments waived the copying fees for documents, but there were a few times the Board of Education did not. Under state law, I could request to simply review the documents rather than copies of them. I would spend a couple hours reviewing the documents rather than having to pay the fees (although those fees never reached the levels of what Palin’s staff is charging).
This isn’t the first time Palin and her staff have shown me they do not embrace the state’s sunshine laws and the transparency it provides. I wrote about it when her e-mail was hacked a month ago.
There’s good news about the private accounts being used for public business. The Associated Press reports a judge ordered those emails to be preserved.