meme. n. A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. [Ref #1]
That’s the definition given in the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition. The topmost collection of definitions, posted at the Urban Dictionary in 2003 by a user called Emme, provide some additional help in understanding the term, which was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene:
1 : an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)
2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable
3 : the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture….
4 : in blogspeak, an idea that is spread from blog to blog
5 : an internet information generator, especially of random or contentless information [Ref #2]
One might add this definition: an idea that is fed by a less than truthful politician to a lazy mainstream media, which is uncritically transmitted to the public when the true facts are readily available & have even been reported on already — sometimes even by the same media source as the one now passing on the prevaricating politician’s false information.
Case in point: from Sarah Palin’s July 3 resignation speech:
Political operatives descended on Alaska last August, digging for dirt. The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice. Over the past nine months I’ve been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations – such as holding a fish in a photograph, wearing a jacket with a logo on it, and answering reporters’ questions.
Every one – all 15 of the ethics complaints have been dismissed. We’ve won! But it hasn’t been cheap – the State has wasted THOUSANDS of hours of YOUR time and shelled out some two million of YOUR dollars to respond to “opposition research” – that’s money NOT going to fund teachers or troopers – or safer roads. And this political absurdity, the “politics of personal destruction” … Todd and I are looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills in order to set the record straight. And what about the people who offer up these silly accusations? It doesn’t cost them a dime so they’re not going to stop draining public resources – spending other peoples’ money in their game. [Ref #3]
There’s actually a number of errors of fact in this brief passage of Palin’s speech, but this post will be long enough if I focus on the one I’ve emphasized: Palin’s claim that $2,000,000 taxpayer (or rather, oil revenue dollars — this is Alaska, after all) have been spent on responding to ethical complaints against Palin.
Problem? Just two days before, on July 1, the Anchorage Daily News, the Juneau Empire, and the Associated Press all reported on figures released by the Alaska Personnel Board about the actual costs of its investigations into ethical complaints against Palin & members of her administration. The costs were considerably less than what Palin claims: $296,042.58. [Ref #4, 5, 6, 7] Big difference. Here’s what that difference looks like:
Wikipedia article has a partial account of the Troopergate scandal — partial because it fails as of this writing to discuss reaction or consequences of the ethics investigations. [Ref #8]) A comparison of the Branchflower & Petumenos reports on Troopergate are beyond the scope of my energy or this post; suffice it to say that I’ve read both (follow the links & you can do so, too [Ref #9, 10]), & find Petumenos’ report to be weak & pitiable. Andrew Halcro summed it up well at the time:Anchorage Daily News has more on the differences between the two reports. [Ref #12]; editorially, the newspaper also found much to doubt in Petumenos’ version. [Ref #13] Be that as it may, Palin has consistently ignored the findings of the Branchflower report, & accepted the inadequate Petumenos report, released the day before the presidential election that saw the McCain/Palin ticket’s loss to Obama/Biden, as completely exonerating her. Besides bad press, the principal results of the Troopergate investigations were that 10 witnesses, including Palin’s husband Todd, were found in contempt by the Alaska Senate in February 2009 for failing initially to respond to Branchflower’s subpoenas the previous September [Ref #14]; and a few days later Palin’s attorney general Talis Colberg was forced to resign for having counseled the 10 to ignore the subpoenas [Ref #15].
Anchorage Daily News by Lisa Demer,known complaints compiled in an Associated Press checklist published on June 21, 2009, I’ve already discussed five (# 4, 5, & 6: the three Troopergate complaints; #2: Andree McLeod’s August 6, 2008 complaint; and #8: the Travelgate complaint). I’ve also discussed #1 on the list, the Troopergate investigation conducted by Stephen Branchflower which in fact found Palin guilty of ethical violations — but Palin, as always, ignores this one. #7 was a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission, which found no jurisdiction (& is certainly not a State of Alaska agency). #3 was filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. [Ref #17]Progressive Alaska:What Do I Know? picked up the story, pointing out that Sean Cockerham’s story — while helpfully explicating the figures — failed to mention the discrepancy between Palin’s “million of dollars” claim and the actual costs:those charges is also grossly inflated and seems to be aimed at preventing people from gaining access to public records. At best it would still leave a huge magnitude of error. prior post of his, in which he did the math on the Palin Administration’s bill of $65,000 for a public records request by Linda Kellen Biegel of Celtic Diva’s Blue Oasis, & finds the Palin Administration to be arithmetically deficient. [Ref #21, 22] Linda, not having $65,000 lying around to gain the Palin Administration’s fabled “transparency,” modified her records request. The new price-tag: $5552.64 [Ref #23] — funds which Linda shortly began to raise. [Ref #24] An interesting fact about this particular records request: it relates to attacks by two local media luminaries — rightwing talk radio host Eddie Burke and Anchorage Daily News reporter Sheila Toomey, who authors the weekly political gossip column “Alaska Ear” — and their ties to the Palin Administration, specifically in relationship to what appear to be coordinated attacks by Burke & Toomey on Andree McLeod, who is responsible for a number of the ethics complaints against Palin. As Linda writes,New York TimesWall Street Journal, which reported,Progressive Alaska on July 6:by Sean Cockerham with new words from Palin about the ethics complaints. I was glad it was by Sean Cockerham: I knew he wouldn’t forget the real cost of the complaints. But turns out Palin has a new explanation for her $2 million figure. Worth a lengthy quote; empasis added:related story by Richard Mauer discussing Palin critics’ defense of their use of public records requests & the Alaska ethics complaint system:“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. “More on Palin’s spreadsheet by Melissa S. Green (Henkimaa). This is the third of what is now a trilogy.
What’s more, nearly two-thirds of that amount was attributable in no small part to an ethics case Palin filed against herself. As explained by Patrick Forey in his Juneau Empire story,
[T]he timing, scope and other factors of the single largest expense appear to fit the case Palin filed against herself that cost $187,797 to investigate. That’s almost two-thirds of the total $296,042 of all Personnel Board investigations in the last two years.
The self-reported complaint was a means to have a legislative investigator’s findings in the “Troopergate” case reexamined by a Personnel Board investigator. She said publicly that her self-reported complaint was without merit. [Ref #6]
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. As Forey reports:
The Legislative Council, chaired by then-Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, had budgeted $100,000 for its independent investigation of Troopergate. Legislative investigator Stephen Branchflower concluded Palin abused her authority when she waged a campaign against a state trooper with whom she had a family dispute, but found she had the legitimate power to fire former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan who failed to take action against the trooper.
Branchflower’s report came out Oct. 10, 2008, in the heat of a bitter presidential campaign. Then, Palin filed her complaint against herself on Troopergate with the Personnel Board. Its report, done by the Personnel Board-hired counsel Tim Petumenos, cleared Palin and came out the evening before the election. [Ref #6]
This chronology is not entirely accurate: in fact Palin filed her self-complaint on September 1, 2008, more than a month before Branchflower’s report was released. (The
There appears to be a lot wrong with the report conducted by Personnel Board Investigator Tim Petumenos when compared to the Branchflower report and many questions remain unanswered.
* Conflicts in evidence that he missed or disregarded
* Misapprehension of the law
* Witnesses he never spoke with directly and whose credibility he could not have assessed
* Evidence he ignored
* An acceptance of statements by the Governor uncritically
* An unsupportable application of the legal standard of “probable cause”
* The failure to consider the evidence in the aggregate
* The failure to even acknowledge, let along evaluate, the circumstantial evidence (e.g., eight individuals all doing and saying the same thing, oftentimes in exactly the same words, 35 times over 18 months, permits a reasonable inference of direction and coordination) [Ref # 11]
Back to the numbers: Petumenos’ investigation of Palin’s complaint against herself, with which two other Troopergate-related complaints were combined (one by the Public Safety Employees’ Association alleging improper access of Trooper Michael Wooten’s personnel & worker’s comp files and attempting to engineer his firing; a second by fired Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan seeking a public hearing in order to clear his name & restore his reputation), took up nearly two-thirds of total expenditures made by the Alaska Personnel Board in responding to ethics complaints in FY 2008-2009 against Palin (note: the Alaska state fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30). Here’s the complete breakdown:
And here’s what it looks like visually:
(Click through on any of these figures to get to my Flickr photostream, where they can also be viewed full-size.)
In other words, not only is Palin’s figure of $2 million for the ethics investigations a wild exaggeration, but turns out that nearly two-thirds of the “THOUSANDS OF HOURS” in “frivolous” ethics complaints were “wasted” by Palin’s complaint against herself. [Ref #5, 6]
Complaints by persons other than Palin against Palin cost only $108,294.66. That’s a far cry from $2 million.
But why can’t we tell which costs went with which other cases? Sean Cockerham explains why in his Anchorage Daily News story:
The newly released expense list doesn’t specify the nature of each case listed. It only provides internal case numbers followed by the total expenses incurred for each one of the cases. The board won’t say which case numbers correspond with which complaint, or provide a detailed breakdown of the expenses. Under state law, ethics complaints are secret unless the subject of the complaint waives privacy. [Ref #5]
It is possible to deduce which expenses could correspond with some of the known ethics complaints filed against the governor.
The chronology of the expense list suggests that the second most expensive case, which cost $43,028, could be a complaint filed by Anchorage activist Andree McLeod. McLeod contended Palin and some of her staff members used their influence to get a Palin supporter a job in state government. [Ref #5]
That case, also investigated by Petumenos, found Palin innocent of any ethical wrongdoing, but Petumenos recommended that Palin aide Frank Bailey be given ethics training because of some questionable emails. [Ref #5] (This is the same Frank Bailey who was suspended with pay for two weeks for some questionable behavior in the Troopergate affair. [Ref #8]) Andree McLeod herself speculated that the cost of investigating her complaint might be attributable to the fact that Palin was on the vice presidential campaign trail at the time, resulting in high travel costs for Petumenos to interview her — something also affecting Petumenos’ Troopergate investigation. As explained by Sean Cockerham,
McLeod said her complaint might not have been so costly to the state had Palin not been traveling around the country on the vice-presidential campaign trail.
Petumenos travelled to St. Louis to interview Palin at least about the Troopergate allegations. McLeod said she understood that Petumenos also raised her allegations in that same interview.
“They had to go down and follow her all over the ends of the Earth to get her deposed,” McLeod said. “Sarah Palin is costing the state a hell of a lot more than just this amount.” [Ref #5]
Cockerham went on to speculate:
The third most costly one, which was listed at $29,962, could be a complaint made against Palin for having the state pay for her children’s travel. Palin ended up settling that complaint by agreeing to reimburse the state about $8,000 for several trips. [Ref #5]
If Cockerham is correct in that speculation, that would mean that the state paid a net total of nearly $22,000 to “dismiss” an ethics complaint against Palin that never would have come up had Palin not inappropriately claimed her children’s travel expenses as “state business” and charged the state for them. The resolution of this particular complaint was not, in fact, a “dismissal”: it was a settlement agreement agreed upon between Palin and — guess who? — Timothy Petumenos. As reported in the
So was she exonerated?
“To be exonerated suggests a hearing on the merits and a conclusion. That was not what happened here,” Petumenos said.
As Petumenos described it, the governor agreed not to contest certain charges. He agreed not to file a formal accusation or take the case to a hearing. [Ref #16]
Not exactly the “dismissal” Palin has claimed it to represent.
What about other ethics complaints? Of the
All the rest were filed with the Alaska Personnel Board. There are one or two still pending; of the rest, all are claimed by Palin as “frivolous.” Certainly one of them was:
12. Jan. 12: Complaint alleging interference in a job hiring was filed under the name of Edna Birch, a busybody character on the British soap opera Emmerdale. Palin’s attorney, Thomas Van Flein, said no one by that name could be found living in Alaska and the filer refused to use a real name, so the complaint was dismissed Feb. 20. [Ref #17]
But it’s hard to say with the others. I wouldn’t be the first to notice that there’s something of a conflict of interest in a personnel board comprising three appointees who serve at the governor’s pleasure ruling on ethical complaints against that selfsame governor. Nor are any of the facts or findings on those cases — other than the bare facts of them being dismissed — available to the public. We have only Palin’s word — reliable or not — against that of whomever lodged the complaints that they were “frivolous.” I don’t have time to look into them all for this post — but you can betcha I’m not going to trust Palin’s word alone. Not after having found so many factual errors already in what she claims about the costs to the State of Alaska of these complaints; whether the Travelgate case fit her characterization as a “dismissal”; & whether Petumenos’ Troopergate report truly exonerated her of ethical violations, in contradiction to Branchflower’s findings.
One more matter about these costs: I’ve mostly been talking about the report of costs to the State of Alaska as found in the Alaska Personnel Board’s report of costs. But there are still one or two Personnel Board cases pending, and two of the three completed cases were with state agencies other than the Personnel Board: the legislative Troopergate case (#1 on the Associated Press checklist) and the APOC case (#2). Could those cases make up the difference between $296,000 and $2 million? According to Pat Forgey ’s Juneau Empire article, the Alaska Legislative Council budgeted $100,000 for the Branchflower investigation [Ref #6]: if used in full (sorry, no time to look up the final cost tonight), that would bring state costs to $396,000. It’s very difficult to believe that the APOC case and the one or two remaining Personnel Board cases could cost $1,604,000. It’s quite clear that Palin’s numbers are way out of whack.
Oh, and by the way — contrary to Palin’s speech of resignation, in which she claimed
Political operatives descended on Alaska last August, digging for dirt. The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice.” [Ref #3]
– every complainant identified in the Associated Press checklist who filed their complaint with an Alaska state agency, except for the obviously bogus Edna Birch, was an Alaska resident. [Ref #17]
So: where did Palin come up with the number $2 million?
I reckon she pulled it out of thin air, or an air thickened perhaps by the sense of persecution she seems to feel over these ethics complaints. The furthest I’ve so far traced it back to is a Office of the Governor press release from June 23, 2009 (announcing the dismissal of case #14 in the Associated Press checklist), which asserts,
In the past two years, the state of Alaska has spent millions of dollars processing ethics complaints, public records requests, and related lawsuits. [Ref #18]
This claim was pretty quickly picked up by Phil Munger of
I suspect that statement is complete bullshit. Millions of dollars means from $2,000,000.00 on up, if I am correct. [Ref #19]
A little more than a week later, on July 2 — the day before Palin announced her resignation, but also a day after the Alaska Personnel Board had released its figures — Steve of
It seems to me that the most significant part of this story is the gap between the Palin allegation last week and the actual cost of the complaints. Deducting the Troopergate costs – which resulted from Palin filing a complaint against herself so that the friendlier Personnel Board would review it instead of a Legislative Committee – the cost of complaints was down almost to $100,000. [Ref #20]
But Steve also noted,
OK, the press release adds in public records searches, but the way they figure [Ref #20]
Steve’s link was to a
[B]oth [Burke and Toomey] seemed to be participating in a coordinated smear campaign of citizen watchdog Andree McLeod. Both received inside information from the Administration that they discussed in their respective mediums. Both made claims that they were receiving/had received documents from requesting records of the State. Knowing how it works and knowing the timing required, that seemed highly unlikely if not impossible.
So, I did my own records request(s) looking to see what kind of communication between the Palin Administration and these media figures was actually going on. [Ref #23]
The point of this is that public records requests don’t, in fact, cost the State of Alaska anything, because the State recovers the costs to provide those public records through fees. Pretty exorbitant fees, too. Unless — if Linda’s speculations are correct — those public records are requested by certain media figures with close ties to the Palin Administration who perhaps just shoot a couple of emails Palin & co.’s way, & perhaps get copies of the requested public records — for free? It’ll be interesting to see what Linda’s public records request turns up.
Meanwhile, so much for the Palin press release claim that some of the fabled $2 million in costs to the State come from public records requests. Not at the rates the State, under Palin, is charging. And thus, another untruth in Palin’s lakefront speech:
And what about the people who offer up these silly accusations? It doesn’t cost them a dime so they’re not going to stop draining public resources – spending other peoples’ money in their game. [Ref #3]
Seems to me that I took $20 out of my own pocket, & a whole lot of other people donated even more, to help Linda raise the funds for that public records request. It costs us considerably more than a dime, Gov. Palin.
Having already read Steve’s and Phil’s blog posts on the matter, I was alert when Palin repeated her 2 million dollar fabrication during her lakefront resignation speech. I was alert when I began to see the 2 million dollar meme repeated uncritically, first on July 4 by reporter Don Hunter in the very same newspaper — the Anchorage Daily News — where Hunter’s colleague Sean Cockerham on July 1 had reported the true costs of the ethics complaints. [Ref #25] And then, more alarmingly, when I began to see the meme reported in national mainstream media sources like the [Ref #26] and the
Over recent months, [Palin's] tenure has been marked by sparring with local bloggers and other citizen activists in the state, some of whom bombarded her office with public-records requests. In all, Gov. Palin has faced 16 ethics inquiries of one sort or another in Alaska since last year.
All but one have since been resolved. Still, they appear to have weighed on the Republican governor in the days before her decision, announced Friday, to hand over the reins to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. Mr. Parnell said on “Fox News Sunday” that her decision was primarily prompted by her concern over $2 million a year the state has spent on records requests and the ethics inquiries.
“I think she used the word ‘insane’ in describing those costs,” he said. [Ref #27]
And so we come back to my addition to the definition of meme: an idea that is fed by a less than truthful politician to a lazy mainstream media, which is uncritically transmitted to the public when the true facts are readily available & have even been reported on already — sometimes even by the same media source as the one now passing on the prevaricating politician’s false information.
But strange — the politician the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are acting as stenographers to is not, this time, Sarah Palin. It’s Palin’s successor, the man who is supposed to take the oath of office as Governor of Alaska on July 26 in Fairbanks: Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. Both stories give as the source for their uncritical repetitions of the $2 million dollar lie a statement Parnell made on Fox News Sunday. As recounted with dismay by Phil Munger in
The most distressing statement Parnell made in the FAUX News interview, was his repeat of this Palin lie: “… and the fact that it was, uh, costing just about $2,000,000.00 of the state taxpayers’ dollars just to fund the staff, uh, to deal with the records requests and the like, and that was, uh, just over-the-top, uh, and I think she used the word “insane” in her, in her, uh, remarks.” [Ref #28]
We’ve learned in the past few days that Parnell, when he assumes the office of governor, plans to continue the policies laid down by his predecessor.
Tell me, Mr. Parnell: does that include the policy of the lie?
Just after posting this, I discovered that among the Anchorage Daily News stories posted late last night (well, tonight actually — but before midnight, whereas now it’s past 3:00 AM) was one
The governor repeatedly returned to the subject of ethics complaints filed against her during her 10-minute interview with the Daily News, saying she spent “most of my day, and my staff, most of their day and the department of law, a lot of their day on the frivolity.”
There have been 18 known ethics complaints filed against her. The governor’s office said they’ve been dismissed so far with no finding of wrongdoing, although she did settle a complaint over state-paid travel for her children.
The state personnel board put its cost of dealing with the complaints at about $300,000 — around two-thirds of which 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.
Palin said Monday she didn’t view the cost as just the $300,000 for the personnel board — but rather $2 million for the state. It is a figure her administration now uses — not meant to be actual checks written by the state but to also reflect time of state employees.
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.
Palin, asked why she allowed the ethics complaints to consume her so much, said she did not take the complaints personally, and that for her it was about state resources being spent on attacks that followed her run last fall as the Republican vice presidential nominee.
“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. [Ref #29]
A hearty thank you to ADN reader WatchingU, who rebutted with the following comment at the ADN website this morning at 2:50:19 AM (on about page 4 of reader comments):
Two Million: It is a figure her administration now uses — not meant to be actual checks written by the state but to also reflect time of state employees.**
Liar liar pants on fire. The ethics complaints are dealt with by the personnel board who are not paid except per diem, they don’t have regular meetings and don’t work a normal schedule,l they have outside jobs, the lawyers hired to investigate are not state employees, and their fees are outlined in the personnel board costs, her lawyer is not a state employee, does not use state time and since the constant statement is that these are frivolous complaints they should not need excessive investigation to be so quickly dismissed as the Governor often brags.
Record requests and email requests have charges associated with them. It is not done for free, and the charges are outrageous. The time associated with doing these things is more than adequately compensated for by the fee’s charged. [Ref #29 reader comments]
Glad I included above the discussion of the hefty fees charged for public records requests, too. Tip o’ the nib to you, WatchingU, for paying attention, & catching Palin out on this latest rationalization.
See also the
But two of Palin’s more prolific critics say that public records laws and the ethics complaint process were used by them as designed — as a way for citizens to watchdog their government and keep abuses in check. [Ref #30]
The “prolific critics” mentioned are Andree McLeod and Linda Kellen Biegel (Celtic Diva). Tip o’ the nib to both of you, too: thanks for all your work to keep Alaska government as honest as we can make it.
See also these related followup posts:
I find it more than a bit ironIc that 63% of the ethics complaint costs actually were for the Troopergate ethics complaints WHICH SHE FILED AGAINST HERSELF.