The Friday release of 24,199 pages of e-mails sent and received by Sarah Palin when she was governor of Alaska could, for perhaps the first time, give Americans from the Lower 48 a glimpse of Ms. Palin as Alaskans know her.
In the broadest sense, both Alaskans and Americans in the Lower 48 have a generally unfavorable view of Palin. Her 36 percent favorability rating among Alaskans in a March Dittman Research and Communications poll is in the same ballpark as her 30 percent rating in the country as a whole, according to Pollster.com.
Yet while Palin's detractors in the Lower 48 often deride her as misinformed (see Paul Revere) and lacking political gravitas, Alaskans negative view of her is driven in no small part by the ethical questions that have surrounded her since before she left the governor's office in 2009. They range from “Troopergate,” in which a popular law-enforcement veteran was fired from Palin's cabinet, to lingering concerns about potential misuse of her official power.
These ethical concerns are at the core of the e-mail dump. In the fall of 2008, media outlets first requested access to Palin's e-mailed records of official business – shortly after she was nominated as the Republican vice presidential candidate, and as the scrutiny of her term in office was mounting.
What the e-mails will disclose is a mystery, but the Alaska journalists who sought them want to know if they reveal any insight into the allegations against Palin. If they do, the e-mails could begin to bring more Americans' views of Palin in line with those of residents in her home state.
'Not the same person'
The current view of Palin among Alaskans has been shaped by many things, from her decision to leave her post as governor two years early to complaints that her persona completely changed after she was tapped by 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain as his running mate.
At one point early in her term, Palin had an approval rating in Alaska of nearly 90 percent and was hailed as being "a breath of fresh air" in a scandal-plagued state. The seeming transformation that occurred in 2008, when she morphed from a pragmatic moderate into a conservative attack dog, was shocking to Alaskans.
“People down south don’t see that she’s not the same person,” says Ivan Moore, a Democratic-leaning pollster in Anchorage. “Either she was faking us then or she’s being dishonest now.”
A series of scandals and ethics investigations that continued after Palin left office have also shaped Alaskans' view of her. None has resulted in any smoking guns, but cumulatively, the persistence of multiple minor allegations has sullied her legacy here.
Said former Gov. Wally Hickel, who had been cochairman of her 2006 gubernatorial campaign: "When Governor Sarah Palin was elected in 2006, we believed she would put Alaska first. But once elected, she put Sarah first," he said in a statement released in 2009.
Troopergate and more
The biggest scandal, called Troopergate, involved two investigations into the circumstances that led to her firing of Walt Monegan, the former Anchorage police chief who was her public safety commissioner. A legislative inquiry concluded that Sarah and Todd Palin had improperly pressured Mr. Monegan to fire a state trooper who was the governor’s former brother-in-law. It found that while Palin had the right to hire and dismiss cabinet members at will, she abused her power by mobilizing state resources against the ex-brother-in-law, who could not be legally fired and who remains a state trooper.
A separate investigation by the state Personnel Board found that there was not enough evidence to support an abuse-of-power finding. Palin said Monegan was a "rogue" commissioner and a poor team player, a description that others who worked with Monegan for many years rejected.
In a sign of discontent among some Alaskans, Palin has also been the target of smaller formal ethics investigations launched by citizens themselves. They include complaints about Palin receiving state per-diem payments for nights spent in her own home in Wasilla, using state money to pay for travel for her children for seemingly frivolous trips, using her position as governor to promote her husband’s snowmobile-racing sponsor, and using state employees and resources to help promote her vice presidential campaign.
She faced about 20 formal ethics complaints. On most, she was cleared by the Personnel Board, though she did have to reimburse the state about $8,000 for her children’s travel and pay back taxes on the per-diem money she collected.
Palin has said the ethics complaints presented her with crushing personal legal bills.
A massive e-mail release
The e-mail release Friday – more than two years after it was first requested – speaks to a further complaint against Palin in office: She conducted state business on a personal Yahoo account. Tracking down those e-mails and the debate over whether to make them public have accounted for some of the delay.
Andree McLeod, an Anchorage political activist who was among the first seeking release of the material, remains dissatisfied. About 2,400 pages are being withheld because the state says they are personal or contain privileged information, and those likely contain the most important material, she says.
Moreover, the method of release – reams of paper with a copying cost of $725, plus a delivery cost of about $400 more – makes a mockery of public access, she says. “This is the most inefficient, incompetent, and costly way of doing business,” she says.
And still, the main issue of mixing state business with private e-mail accounts remains unaddressed, Ms. McLeod adds. She has been lobbying for a law requiring that any state business conducted by e-mail be restricted to state accounts, which are secure, readily preserved, and accessible for public review.
“When they prohibit the use of private e-mail for official business, then the job is done,” McLeod says.