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Alaska high court says private emails OK for state business

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska state employees can use private email accounts for public business but the messages must be preserved under public-records laws, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled on Friday in a case stemming from ex-Governor Sarah Palin's communications practices.

Palin is out of office but the ruling could affect her successor, Governor Sean Parnell, who is involved in his own controversy over public records. Critics have accused Parnell and his aides of using text messages rather than official emails to keep communications out of public view.

Electronic messages about state business are no different from paper communications under the Alaska Public Records Act, the Alaska Supreme Court said in its unanimous 16-page written decision that largely upheld a lower court ruling.

All paper or electronic messages regarding state business must be preserved and made available for public review, in accordance with state law, "and that duty cannot be extinguished by a public official's unreviewable decision simply not to preserve them," the court said.

A spokeswoman for Parnell said that his administration viewed the court's ruling as "favorable."

"Text messages are, by their nature, transitory, so they wouldn't be appropriate for preservation or constitute public records," Parnell's press secretary, Sharon Leighow, told Reuters in an emailed statement.

Friday's decision resulted from a lawsuit filed in 2008 by Andree McLeod, an Anchorage activist who criticized Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president that year, for using private Yahoo accounts to communicate state business.

She and others contended that Palin used private accounts to evade state public-records rules. McLeod also argued that no state business should be conducted on private email accounts.

Open-records requests filed by McLeod and several journalists resulted in release of thousands of pages of Palin emails during her term as governor, many of them from her private accounts. The emails were released in 2011 and earlier this year, long after Palin resigned her post in 2009.

Friday's ruling, though it partially affirmed the lower-court ruling protecting the use of private emails, is a victory for McLeod, her attorney said.

"The Alaska Supreme Court's decision this morning demonstrates the importance of what citizen activists such as Andree McLeod can accomplish to advance the interests of all Alaskans in ensuring that all state employees, from the governor on down, conduct official state business in a manner that at all times and through all means of communication serves the public interest," attorney Don Mitchell said in a statement.

An August 27 opinion by the state legislature's legal adviser concluded that text messages are subject to state public records laws. Parnell's spokeswoman said at the time that the governor disagrees and considers text messages to be "transitory in nature" and difficult to preserve.

A representative for Palin could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Carol Bishopric)

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