Alaska's tab for ethics complaints about Palin: $1.9 million

It's a tiny fraction of the state's operating budget, but Palin supporters insist the cost weighed heavily on the soon-to-be-ex-governor.

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    Sarah Palin said earlier this month that she would step down as governor of Alaska. In a speech announcing her resignation, Palin cited the cost of refuting ethics complaints against her office. New figures released today put the cost to Alaska taxpayers at $1.9 million.
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The numbers are in. Alaska's response to ethics allegations and requests for information concerning the conduct of soon-to-be-ex-governor Sarah Palin has cost the state $1.9 million.

The expense of supplying information and answering the allegations, Governor Palin has said, is a key reason she decided to resign her post as of July 26. Her office supplied the cost breakdown late Wednesday.

It's indisputable that Palin has come under more scrutiny than her most recent predecessors in office – and that the ethics complaints and requests for information crescendoed after she was tapped to run for vice president on the national Republican ticket. No complaints were filed against her two predecessors, Frank Murkowski, a Republican, and Tony Knowles, a Democrat, compared with 15 against Palin during her 2-1/2 years in office.

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Palin's office and her supporters insist that these state-borne costs weighed heavily on the governor, along with her own personal legal bills. Others scoff at the idea that she's leaving office over it.

Where the $1.9 million went

The spreadsheet released Wednesday shows that most of the $1.9 million – spread over Palin's tenure – is for staff time of state attorneys and other salaried state employees, who would have been paid anyway. The total expended to date is 0.02 percent of Alaska's operating budget of $8.7 billion for fiscal year 2010.

Still, the apportioned expenses for state workers represent a diversion from normal work, says Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.

“State attorneys had to be pulled off cases to work on this. That’s a real cost,” she says. Extra costs to the state came in the form of outside investigators and new information-technology equipment, she says. “The volume since the governor announced she was going to run for V.P. just overwhelmed us.”

Most probes cleared Palin

All 15 ethics complaints against Palin considered so far by Alaska's Personnel Board have been dismissed, though one resulted in a settlement requiring the governor to reimburse the state for travel costs incurred by her family. The Personnel Board’s costs were dominated by the so-called Troopergate affair, in which Palin was accused of firing the public safety commissioner because he did not fire a state trooper involved in a contentious divorce from the governor’s sister. A separate Troopergate investigation by the state legislature, costing $75,000, resulted in a finding that Palin had abused her power.

Long-time Palin friend Kristan Cole says the thing primarily on the governor's mind July 3, when she dropped the bombshell announcement about stepping down, was "stopping this madness" concerning the ethics charges and public-records requests. Palin supporters say they concern matters that are frivolous or petty.

“It became her primary job, instead of her primary job as governor,” Ms. Cole says. “It does put a huge burden on the state and on her personally. She does not feel that’s fair for the citizens of Alaska to do that for the next 18 months.”

Cole, who oversees a legal-defense fund that is filling with donations, says the governor and her husband are struggling with legal bills that exceeded $500,000.

Other motives at play?

Critics reject the notion that Palin is leaving her job to spare Alaska further distraction and expense.

“The only reason she’s quitting is she’s got to cash in while the getting’s good,” says Palin foe Andree McLeod, an Anchorage activist.

That cashing in – reaping financial rewards from her book deal and potential speaking engagements – is itself a violation of the spirit and letter of the state Ethics Act, which precludes public officials from personally profiting for two years after leaving a government position, Ms. McLeod says.

But the argument that overzealous critics abused their rights under the federal Freedom of Information Act and the state Ethics Act has resonated nationally. “Death by a Thousand FOIAs” was the headline on a sympathetic column penned by Wall Street Journal writer John Fund.

Whatever their outcomes, citizen-led ethics charges raise valid concerns about public policy and official conduct, says Zane Henning of Wasilla, who has known Palin since he was 12 and is accusing her of impropriety. Three days after Palin announced her resignation, he filed a new complaint concerning the governor’s practice of collecting per-diem payments for days and nights at her Wasilla home.

"Why should she be able to stay and sleep in her own home and charge us $60 a day to do it?” says Mr. Henning, who claims Palin should reimburse the state $18,000. It should be formally established that future governors are not permitted to do the same thing, he says. “It’s those kinds of things that people pick up on when you present yourself as holier-than-thou,” he says.

Citizens also have a legitimate right to view public records, says activist McLeod, who has battled Palin over ethics charges and is engaged in litigation over state business Palin allegedly conducted on a private e-mail account.

The expense of supplying public records

If public-records requests are expensive, the Palin administration’s practices help make them so, says Gregg Erickson, a Juneau economist and former state revenue official who publishes a specialized newsletter on Alaska budget issues.

“They have taken the position that a lawyer has to look at every single record before its release. If a lawyer has to look at it and review it, and maybe write a legal opinion on it, well, that’s going to be expensive,” says Mr. Erickson. Court fights also add to the costs, he says.

Citizens and journalists who sought public records have been socked with huge bills. At one point, the Palin administration presented the Associated Press with a bill of $45 million for copies of official state e-mails sent to Palin’s husband, to the McCain campaign, and to federal agencies.

That practice predated Palin’s ascension to the national stage.

In December 2007, when University of Alaska marine scientist Rick Steiner sought reports detailing state biologists’ assessments about then-impending Endangered Species Act protections for polar bears, he received a $468,784 bill from the state. After a few months of haggling, Dr. Steiner turned to the Bush administration. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which had its own copies of state biologists’ reports, readily complied.

“They didn’t charge me a dime,” Steiner says. The reports showed that state biologists, contrary to Palin’s assertion, did not dispute a threatened listing for polar bears, Steiner says.

That and other episodes prove the Alaska Public Records Act should be reformed, says Steiner. Citizens cannot be expected to pay huge fees to view public documents, and secrecy exemptions should be narrowed, he says. Even if the state bears financial costs, he says, “that’s the cost of open government.” Given modern information technology, “it shouldn’t be that expensive at all.”

An act of sacrifice, say Palin backers

Before she was elected governor, Palin employed the Ethics Act herself, establishing a relationship as a government watchdog. She filed two ethics charges against top Murkowski administration officials, including Attorney General Gregg Renkes, who ultimately resigned in 2005. He was cleared of legal violations, a result that displeased Palin at the time.

"Us Alaskans out there who are not caught up on the technicalities of the Ethics Act, we're saying, 'What's right is right. What's wrong is wrong. It's a pretty simple issue," she said then.

To her fans, Palin’s resignation is confirmation that she puts principle first.

“I think time will reflect on her well. I think people will see the true sacrifice that this was. I think she’ll be remembered as a very selfless person,” Cole says.

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