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Alaska charges steep prices for state records

A Palin-related deluge of media requests is reported by officials.

October 18, 2008|From the Associated Press

Alaska offers no bargains to people asking for records of the taxpayers' money at work.

On the contrary, the prices it has set for copies of state documents could yield the government millions of dollars -- if anyone agrees to pay them.

Officials say they have been swamped with requests for records since Gov. Sarah Palin was selected to be Republican John McCain's running mate. Some news organizations have asked for copies of e-mails between state employees and Palin's husband, Todd.

The state is charging about $960 for each search of an employee's e-mail account -- 13 hours of labor, the state said, at a technology worker's wage of $74 an hour. At that rate, a search of all 16,000 state employee accounts would cost about $15 million.

For requests of fewer than 200 pages, the state sometimes waives fees.

Agencies also offer news organizations the opportunity to fine-tune their requests to avoid high fees.

The Associated Press asked Alaska to waive the fees because the information is in the public interest. Alaska's senior assistant attorney general declined, citing the public's interest in spending taxpayer money wisely.

"State agencies cannot foresee every exceptional circumstance that might make a waiver in the public interest," Ruth Hamilton Heese said in an e-mail reply to the Associated Press. "In the current budget climate, however, cost is a very important element of the decision."

Alaska also has sought to extend until Nov. 17 -- after the presidential election -- its deadline to hand over copies of the Todd Palin e-mails to 18 news organizations and others.

The state's attorney general says he wants to give workers more time to find the records and give lawyers time to review them.

When an environmental group, Alaskans for Clean Water, asked for copies of state records about an unsuccessful ballot proposal to limit mining pollution, officials initially said they would cost $50,000.

Eventually the price dropped to $7,147.

The AP and several other news organizations have agreed to split the costs to obtain the documents.

"They overestimated it grossly," said Scott Kendall, the group's attorney, "and I think that overestimation was for the purpose of discouraging me."

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