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Rough sledding

Intense scrutiny of Alaska Gov.

Rough sledding

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Andree McLeod once seemed an unlikely force to help drive Gov. Sarah Palin to quit her post as Alaska's top official: The Anchorage resident is a Republican and one-time Palin ally who first scored local headlines in the mid-1990s when she fought city hall over the right to sell falafels from a sidewalk cart.

But McLeod soon turned into a Palin watchdog: She's filed at least five of the 20 ethics complaints leveled against Palin and her staff since 2006. State officials have dismissed nearly all 20 of the claims. At least four are pending.

Palin says McLeod's angst comes from her failure to secure a job in Palin's administration, but McLeod says her efforts are about government accountability, not a job refusal. The activist has also obtained boxes of public records through the Alaska Public Records Act, according to the Anchorage Daily News, but she isn't alone: Media outlets and other individuals have filed at least 238 such requests, mostly since Palin burst onto the national scene nearly a year ago as the Republican vice presidential nominee.

The governor cited the drain of complaints and records requests when she delivered a bombshell announcement on July 3: Palin said she would step down from her governor's post on July 26, nearly 17 months before the end of her term-and 11 months after she burst onto the national stage as the surprise presidential running mate of Sen. John McCain. The governor said the "politics of personal destruction" had crippled her ability to do her job.

As confounded political observers ponder Palin's future, it's worth examining what led the governor to quit. Among other factors, Palin cited the crush of two things she championed as a governor and as a vice presidential candidate: ethics reform and public transparency. And it's worth noting who squeezed hardest: not just the "mainstream media elite" Palin often chides, but also ordinary citizens in Palin's backyard.

The episode raises a central question about politics and public disclosure: Do citizens and the media abuse their right to public information and ethics complaints, or is heightened scrutiny the price of heightened exposure?

In her resignation speech, Palin decried the mounting public information requests that she said swamped her office: "The state has wasted thousands of hours of your time and shelled out some 2 million of your dollars to respond to opposition research."

According to Alaska law, anyone can request a host of public records, and the state is obligated to reply. (Some records are exempt: For example, records protected by executive privilege or privacy laws.)

The Alaska law is a state version of the national Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that covers public requests for federal records. When Congress enacted FOIA in 1966, media outlets and individual citizens began using the law to research federal offices, and they often uncovered scandal: A group of George Washington University (GWU) students using FOIA requests helped uncover corruption that led to the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973.

Like many state records laws, FOIA exempts some sensitive records like national security information. But unlike some state laws, FOIA requests don't require a strict response time from federal agencies. Some agencies-like the U.S. State Department-specify that "whenever possible" they will furnish records within 20 days, but a first-come-first-served system often means massive backlogs: Last year, researchers at GWU estimated the number of pending FOIA requests at 200,000.

Though state laws covering public records vary, timelines are often tighter at local levels: When the Illinois state Senate revamped its public records law in June, lawmakers shortened response time for records requests from seven to five business days, though officials can request extensions. They also simplified the process for filing requests and established civil penalties between $2,500 and $5,000 for agencies that fail to respond properly.

The Illinois revisions came in the wake of the state's scorching scandal over its disgraced former governor, Rod Blagojevich: Federal officials arrested Blagojevich on charges that he tried to sell former Sen. Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. He denied the charges, but the controversy deepened the corruption scandals that have long plagued Illinois government.

Andy Shaw heads the Chicago-based Better Government Association (BGA), a nonpartisan watchdog group that advocates government transparency across the country. Shaw-a former reporter in Chicago-said the state's revisions are key to fighting a "crisis at all levels" in Illinois: "Transparency is the backbone to good government."

Shaw says that applies in Alaska too, where public records requests mounted over the last year as Palin's popularity grew. Linda Perez, the governor's administrative director, told the Daily News that her office has seen 238 requests since 2006, and that 189 of those poured in after Palin became a vice presidential candidate last August. During the last governor's tenure, Perez says 109 requests came in over four years.

Perez said most requests come from state and national media, though some have come from individuals seeking information for ethics complaints. Some requests can take weeks or months to process. Perez said the governor's office estimates that staff members have spent some 5,773 hours responding to records requests and ethics complaints, representing about $415,000 in personnel time.

But obtaining public records can grow costly too. Federal law allows agencies to charge fees for document search and duplication, and officials may ask requesters how much they're willing to pay when filing a request.Under Alaska law fees may be charged for search, duplication, and review of documents. A heavy volume can carry a heavy price tag: When the Associated Press asked the governor's office for all state emails sent to Todd Palin, the office quoted a staggering price for the service: $15 million. Officials estimated it would cost $960.31 to search and review each email account for 16,000 employees. The quote didn't include copying costs.

Shaw from BGA acknowledges that government offices can face an overload of records requests, especially from citizens: "You do run the risk of a lot of frivolous FOIAs and a lot of people with axes to grind and games to play and time on their hands who could inundate government with a lot of FOIAs of a nonsensical nature."

But while Shaw also acknowledges that many FOIA requests are "fishing expeditions," he insists that access to public records is critical: "Much of the best investigative reporting begins with a hunch or a tip or an idea, and you file a FOIA and see what happens."

Shaw isn't sympathetic to Palin's complaints about records requests, saying that 280 inquiries over two years don't sound like burdensome numbers. And Shaw says running for national office naturally draws national attention: "She should have known full well-and probably did-that her life would become an open book, and so would her government."

Becoming an open book was part of Palin's pitch during her successful 2006 gubernatorial run. She unseated Republican Frank Murkowski-a governor known for his lack of transparency-and promised ethics reform. Palin delivered: She led legislative efforts to rewrite ethics laws in 2007, producing tougher standards of accountability for state officials.

Nearly two years later, Palin said she still supports the reform, but she added: "The ethics law that I championed became [opponents'] weapon of choice over the past nine months."

Mike Nizich, Palin's chief of staff, reports 20 ethics complaints against the governor or her staff since 2006 and says many of the complaints are frivolous. For example, Linda Kellen Biegel, a Democratic blogger, complained that Palin wore a coat with the snowmobile logo of Arctic Cat, which sponsored the governor's husband, Todd Palin, in the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race. The complaint called that a conflict of interest. But a personnel board dismissed the complaint, saying most Alaskans wear coats with logos.

Officials also dismissed a Jan. 12 complaint filed under the name Edna Birch-a popular character on a British soap opera. Palin's attorney said officials could find no one by that name living in Alaska.

But some complaints were more serious. After a legislative investigation concluded that Palin violated a state ethics law in handling the dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, the governor asked for another review: An attorney hired by a state personnel board said Palin did not violate ethics laws.

A separate complaint contended that Palin inappropriately charged the state for some of her children's travel to state functions. A board found no wrongdoing, but Palin did agree to reimburse the state some $10,000 for a handful of trips.

Thomas Van Flein, Palin's private attorney, says the governor also owes some $500,000 for legal fees associated with ethics complaints. Van Flein says a state official could not use state attorneys for personal defense against abuse-of-power allegations, though the state may reimburse Palin for costs associated with dismissed claims.

In the meantime, Alaskan Kristan Cheryl Cole set up a fund to help cover Palin's legal expenses, soliciting maximum donations of $150. For now, Palin can't access the money: Another ethics complaint contends the fund is inappropriate.

Most of the ethics complaints have come from citizens in Alaska, like McLeod, who filed another complaint after the governor announced her resignation. Palin responded with a Twitter post that indirectly referenced McLeod: "Are these constant, wasteful, thumped-up ethics charges result of not caving when the filer begged for a job?"

McLeod says no: "The public records laws and the ethics complaints are the tools in place for citizens to discover the inner workings of their government and address the wrongdoing of their public officials."

McLeod told me that she hasn't kept track of how much money she's spent on her efforts, but says she receives no financial backing from outside groups or citizens. She refused to comment on her current employment status.

While ethics complaints have statutes of limitations, public records requests could go on indefinitely. That means if Palin stays on the national stage, Alaska officials could still face a litany of records requests from interested reporters.

Dave Woodard, a GOP strategist and political scientist at Clemson University, says he thinks Palin will maintain a national profile, noting her popularity with Republicans. After Palin's resignation announcement, a USA Today/Gallup poll reported 71 percent of Republicans said they would vote for her as president.

Woodard said time will reveal if Palin can endure the ongoing scrutiny that would come with such a quest: "This is what happens when someone goes onto the national stage: Either they overcome or they succumb."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.