Gee, I seem to be staying up late again, as I did for the first of this series of posts on Sarah Palin’s 2 million dollar meme [Ref #1]. I should sleep really nicely on the red-eye flight I’ll be on this time to morrow morning.
Why am I up? Because after getting home very late from watching “Caprica” at my friend Sylvia’s place — which I had arrived at very late due to having first spent time writing the 2nd in this series, on the Office of the Governor’s nearly 2 million dollar spreadsheet [Ref #2] — I had the poor judgment to check out my Google Reader, & discovered that Sean Cockerham had filed a story on the spreadsheet [Ref #3] at 9:34 PM last night:
The story addresses some of the problem issues with the spreadsheet, especially those that come with Cockerham’s capabilities as a journalist who actually interviews people (unlike me, I mainly just read documents), so he was able to fill in some of the blanks about what some of the line items in the Office of the Governor’s spreadsheet actually represented. I tend to have greater trust in Cockerham’s reporting than in the reports of certain other ADN journalists, so I was disappointed that he failed to catch some of the errors that I and a commenter or two earlier discovered on the spreadsheet itself. Because of filing deadlines on deadlines, perhaps? Maybe he’ll do a followup — I hope so. Meanwhile, as of this writing, the ADN website doesn’t have a copy of the spreadsheet posted, so ADN readers can’t examine it for themselves. Helpful I’ve got it here, eh? [Ref #4]
But, the story still leads to further deterioration of Palin’s 2 million dollar claim. This post is mainly just to walk you through it.
Let’s begin where Cockerham begins: with a reiteration of what Palin’s claim is:
“That huge waste that we have seen with the countless, countless hours that state staff is spending on these frivolous ethics violations and the millions of dollars that Alaskans are spending, that money not going to things that are very important, like troopers and roads and teachers and fish research,” Palin said this week. [Ref #3]
Cockerham goes on to explain that the Palin administration had provided the ADN with a breakdown of the $1.9 million that they are claiming the State of Alaska has spent on these allegedly “frivolous” ethics complaints; the breakdown is primarily an account of the hours state employees, including Department of Law attorneys, have worked on the the legislative Troopergate investigation last year, on public records requests, and on lawsuits and ethics complaints. Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow acknowledged that the state employees would have been paid regardless of what exactly they were working on, but, she said,
“Important legal issues involving the state’s interests were delayed in order to respond to these complaints. That means lost value to the state, which is measurable in dollars,” she said. “There were also hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on equipment and outside legal counsel — dollars that could have been used to benefit the state.” [Ref #3]
What Leighow does not acknowledge, of course, is that public accountability of elected officials — themselves state employees, who are supposed to be working for us — is itself a benefit to the state, and that the statutory right to access to public records and to make complaints when ethical violations are suspected are two of the fundamental ways that citizens have available to keep their employees honest.
In the posted-while-waiting-for-the-bus addendum to my earlier spreadsheet post, I wrote:
Who’s to say if all the public records requests listed on p. 1 have anything to do with ethics complaints against Palin? or even, indeed, with Palin at all? Might some of them relate to other functions and officces of Alaska government? Give us a breakdown, please. Also give us a comparison with public records requests made in the prior year of Palin’s administration before she was tapped by McCain, and with a typical year of the Murkowski & Knowles administrations. Be sure as well to include information on the fees charged for public records requests under all three administrations, and how much income the State of Alaska derived from these fees to offset the costs. By all accounts, fees charged by the Palin administration are vastly exhorbitant and seem calculated to discourage citizens from being able to hold government accountable to the people. Does Parnell intend to follow these usurious policies too? [Ref #2; emphasis added]
Cockerham answers the portion that I’ve bolded. He writes:
The Palin administration has experienced a volume of information requests and public ethics complaints beyond those of any previous Alaska governor. Most came after Aug. 29 of last year, the day that John McCain chose Palin to be the Republican party’s vice presidential nominee.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s unprecedented,” said Linda Perez, who handles the requests as Palin’s administrative director and has been in state government since the Sheffield administration in the 1980s.
She said the Palin administration in its two and a half years has received 238 public records requests — 189 of them coming since McCain chose her as his running mate last August. The previous governor, Frank Murkowski, had 109 in four years. [Ref #3]
Let me make another observation and another request, then. Observation: public records requests also play a crucial role in the process of evaluating candidates for office, & it would seem entirely appropriate for a candidate for national office — in fact a national office, if the candidate was successful, which would put her one heartbeat away from the most powerful post in the country &, arguably, the world — to be scrutinized with extraspecial diligence. It shouldn’t be any big surprise at all that Palin’s candidacy for U.S. vice president would lead to an unprecedented number of public records requests. I recall that the City of Wasilla also experienced a deluge of requests about Palin last fall, in its case into Palin’s record as mayor of Wasilla.
So now my new request: give us a rundown of how Alaska’s experience with Palin before and after her candidacy as VP compares with the experience of other state governments when one of their public officials was tapped for the same position. Extra credit if you can find a comparison with a state that has never before fielded a VP candidate. Extra extra credit if that VP candidate had, just a month or two before s/he was tapped, become a central figure in an ethics-related investigation like our own Troopergate, which gave both state and nation every good reason to want to have clear answers about whether Palin had, as was alleged, abused her power and violated Alaska’s executive ethics statute.
Make sense? Yes, I kinda thought so myself.
Back to Cockerham’s story:
The public records requests to Palin are largely from members of the Alaska and national press, although some are from people who have filed ethics complaints against the governor. A large portion of the money Palin talks about as she explains reasons for her resignation is state employee time on public records requests. [Ref #3]
In other words, only some of the public records requests Palin & co. are complaining about comes from “frivolous” ethics complaints. Turns out that some of it was just — what, O students of American civics? — the state and national press playing the role that it’s supposed to play in a representative democracy: helping the entire nation to evaluate the qualifications and record of the person they are being asked to vote into power. How utterly appalling! Why, if we lived in the Soviet Union, or even Putin’s Russian Federation, surely we would never have to watch our candidate suffer such indignity! Surely there wouldn’t even be a press corps of “opposition researchers” (Palin’s oft-repeated catchphrase) who could even attempt such incredible evil: they’d all be doing work that benefited the state in some labor camp or gulag instead!
Fact is, the press was doing what it should be doing. And if some of that press was, as Palin alleges, “opposition” — please: a healthy opposition is also fundamental to the balance of forces necessary to keep democracy safe. Hello?
Onward. A couple of days ago, Steve at What Do I Know? wrote in response to my meme post,
Palin’s counterclaim is that she’s counting the cost of all the time others besides the Personnel Review Board spent. One line from a new ADN article from Sean Cockerham Mel quoted caught my eye:
It is a per-hour calculation that the Palin administration put together, involving time spent by state lawyers deciding which public information to release as a result of all public records requests, time spent by governor’s office staffers responding to media inquiries about ethics complaints, and time technicians spend on retrieving requested e-mail, among other things.This isn’t in quotes in the article, so I’m not sure Palin actually said this or Sean has worded it this way, but as I understand it, no one should be deciding which public information to release. ALL public information should be released. [Ref #5, citing Ref #6]
At the time, I agreed with Steve’s criticism, commenting,
I’ve been thinking about that “deciding which public info to release” thing too: what in fact is behind that? Is that why searching state servers for emails between, say, Eddie Burke & certain Palin admin officials is taking so long: because it’s not just searching, but also deciding which posts to actually pass on to Celtic Diva in response to her public records request? If so, then sure, I could see where it could get overwhelming, b/c that’s a lot of extra decisionmaking to do, to figure out what is or what is not politically advantageous — b/c the job of govt. has been handed over completely to politics & ideologies, no longer to the good of all the people. [Ref #5, comments]
Well, first, we have to remember it wasn’t in quotes, so we don’t know if Palin actually said that or Sean paraphrased her that way.
Second, some information is NOT public because it has personnel or other confidential information, so some deciding may be in order. But NOT for public information. And unlike the Feds, the state shouldn’t have any national security issues to deal with.
$2 million is a lot of hours. Either they are totally incompetent, billing fraudulently, or just making the number up. [Ref #5, comments; emphasis added]
Cockerham’s story follows the explanation offered by Steve that I’ve bolded above. Cockerham writes,
The biggest chunk of [state employee time spent on public records requests], more than $600,000, represents hours state lawyers spent reviewing requested information. They decide how much to release. Records can be withheld for reasons like an individual’s privacy or for “deliberative process” — an executive privilege generally limited to the governor and close advisers, covering internal deliberations before a decision is made. [Ref #3]
Which is a reasonable explanation overall; someone other than me will have to rule on whether the state employee hours represented by that “more than $60,000” were exaggerated. But whether or not, remember again: (1) all those hours were hours the state employees would have gotten paid regardless of whether it was in examining public records, or fulfilling some other task demanded of their jobs; and (2) the biggest chunk of those hours were not related to putatively “frivolous” ethics claims, but to public records requests by the Alaska and national media who — yep, I’m going to say it again — made those requests in fulfillment of the press’ role in informing the public about the qualifications and performance of a candidate for high office. And I’m just going to have to hope that Department of Law lawyers were fulfilling their own roles properly and ethically, and perhaps even with a fulfilling sense of their own importance in the protection of democracy as well as the constitutionally mandated right to individual privacy. Nothing happened here that is worth any more gripes or moans from Palin and her camp.
Just because it’s late, and even if I go to bed right this second I’ll only have one hour to sleep, I’m going to skip over some of Cockerham’s article right now to some other stuff that I found ludicrous about the claims behind Palin’s spreadsheet.
On the Alaska Personnel Board’s work on ethics complaints:
A large part of the Palin administration’s $1.9 million cost breakdown is $560,800 for state personnel board work on ethics complaints. But the board itself recently gave a much smaller figure — $300,000 — for hiring outside investigators for the complaints, nearly all of which have been dismissed. Perez said the difference is the larger number represents contracts for services not yet billed. [Ref #3]
To believe this, one would have to believe that just what has not yet been billed from the 13 ethics complaints the Alaska Personnel Board has already reported on, plus whatever may come out of the one or two FY08-09 cases still pending, will nearly double the Personnel Board’s figures. Cockerham rounded their total up to $300,000; it was actually $296,043, whic means that — according to Perez — what’s not been billed yet is over a quarter of a million dollars: $264,757. Way?
And remember again that of the $296,043 (or use Cockerham’s rounded up figure) reported by the Alaska Personnel board already, nearly 2/3 of it came from Palin’s ethics complaint against herself — a complaint that she admitted herself at the time was “without merit.” [Ref #7]
As I wrote in my “meme” post,
Without merit, huh? Do I hear the word frivolous?
Well, not exactly frivolous. Palin had serious reason to file an ethics complaint against herself: it was her attempt to forestall, & ultimately to negate the “guilty of ethics violations” verdict of, the legislative Troopergate investigation conducted by investigator Stephen Branchflower. [Ref #1]
This time I’ll let Cockerham remind us how that worked:
Around two-thirds of the $300,000 that has been spent was in addressing the “Troopergate” issue last fall. Palin herself initiated the personnel board investigation on “Troopergate,” saying that the state Legislature’s investigation of the matter was politicized and she was seeking the appropriate venue to deal with it. The Palin administration cost breakdown also includes what’s calculated as more than $100,000 worth of per-hour state lawyer time related to the Legislature’s investigation of the “Troopergate” affair. The Legislature’s report found Palin abused her power, while the personnel board’s investigator disagreed. [Ref #3]
This seems like a good time to show off the nifty little pie chart I constructed for the “meme” post which shows exactly what Palin’s nearly 2/3 of the pie looks like:
(Click through on the photo to get to my Flickr photostream, where you can view this chart full-size.)
As AKMuckraker wrote yesterday,
I’m a sucker for a pie chart, and what this one says is that between the Troopergate probe that she herself initiated, the other Troopergate probe that found her guilty of ethics violations, the investigation that resulted in reimbursing the state for her children’s travel expenses, and the one that suggested ethics training for a top member of the administration… the biggest chunk of that pie is the governor’s doing and belongs right on the governor’s plate. [Ref #8]
Now, finally, we come to my very most favoritest of all the claims made by Palin’s staff in Cockerham’s article:
Another significant chunk of the $1.9 million that Palin talks about is what her administration says is over $415,000 worth of staff time in the governor’s office.
Perez said that represents an estimated 5,773 hours of staff time doing tasks related to public records requests and ethics complaints, whether it be Palin’s spokeswoman answering questions about complaints, staffers making copies, or time the head of the governor’s Anchorage office, Kris Perry, spends reviewing documents.
“Kris Perry, at least half of her time is spent dealing with ethics complaints and public records requests,” said the governor’s spokeswoman, Leighow. [Ref #3]
Let’s do a little math:
5,773 hours of staff time divided by 40 hours per typical work week = 144.325 weeks
144.325 weeks divided by 52 weeks in a year = 2.775 years of staff time
2.775 years of staff time — without even any holiday or annual leave! — to address these public records requests?
Do you believe that? I sure don’t.
(Do you think it was worth losing any sleep over? At least I have time before work for a shower.)
Phil Munger at Progressive Alaska — who provided me a copy of the Palin spreadsheet in the first place — has a post at his blog in which he’s collecting other spreadsheet & $2 million meme stories. Check it out:
- 7/8/09. “Saradise Lost – Book 3 – Chapter 14 — WTF Spreadsheet . Will the AK MSM Buy It? Phil Munger (Progressive Alaska).
There’s several of them: follow the tag Palin ethics complaints.
- 7/7/09. “The 2 million dollar meme” by Melissa S. Green (Henkimaa).
- 7/8/09. “The nearly 2 million dollar spreadsheet” by Melissa S. Green (Henkimaa). A first look at the spreadsheet released by the Office of Governor that attempts to justify Palin’s $2 million claim. Some legit costs, but lots & lots of padding.
- 7/8/09. “Palin says inquiries wasted ‘millions’ — TALLY: Record requests, ethics complaints, lawsuits, troopergate given price tag” by Sean Cockerham (Anchorage Daily News).
- Undated, circa 7/7/09. Untitled spreadsheet detailing estimated expenses to the State of Alaska for public records requests and ethics complaints in 2008-2009 (Alaska Office of the Governor; available on Henkimaa.com).
- 7/7/09. “Deciding Which Public Information to Release” by Steve (What Do I Know?).
- 7/6/09. “Palin says ethics inquiries were paralyzing — INTERVIEW: Governor says she resigned because of frivolous complaints” by Sean Cockerham (Anchorage Daily News).
- 7/1/09. “State spent nearly $300K investigating Palin ethics complaints: Most expensive investigation may have been driven by Palin herself” by Patrick Forgey (Juneau Empire).
- 7/8/09. “Palin’s Milllllions of Dollars!” by AKMuckraker (The Mudflats).