Part of Dean’s records sealed in state archives

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(Host) Many of the records from the 11 years Howard Dean was governor of Vermont will be kept secret, at least for now. Shortly before he left the governor’s job, Dean negotiated a deal that seals his sensitive papers for 10 years. Records from the two previous administrations were closed for just six years. Dean is running for president, and he says he wanted the records closed because of political considerations.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) (Sound of footsteps on stairs.) Assistant State Archivist Christie Carter leads the way downstairs to a basement vault at the secretary of state’s office. Inside the climate controlled room are documents from early Vermont, like the original 1777 Vermont constitution. There the priceless and the unusual: election records from the 1780s, and town lists of the insane from the 1830s. The archives also hold more recent history.

(Carter) “There are 195 cubic feet of open records and 150 cubic feet of records that will be closed for ten years. And I can show you where they are….” (Sound of vault opening.)

(Dillon) Stacked in brown cardboard boxes alongside the files of Governors Richard Snelling and Madeleine Kunin are the latest gubernatorial papers. These were turned over last week by outgoing Governor Howard Dean. The files that Dean decided should not be released immediately will be kept secret until January 2013. The 10-year time lock is longer than the six years agreed to by Kunin and Snelling.

Dean, who is running for president, told reporters recently why he wanted the files closed for four more years:

(Dean) “Well, there are future political considerations. We didn’t want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor.”

(Dillon) By law, the governor is supposed to leave his official correspondence with the secretary of state. But Dean was allowed to close files under the doctrine of executive privilege. The Vermont Supreme Court in 1990 ruled that executive privilege allows a governor to keep confidential documents that reflect “advisory opinions, recommendations, and deliberations.” In other words, the paper trail that shows how the governor came to a decision can, and usually is, kept secret.

Dean and his lawyers got to decide what was covered by executive privilege. The result was 150 cubic feet of files that won’t be released for a decade.

(Sound of files being stacked, shuffled.) Christie Carter, the assistant archivist, pulls boxes off the shelf for a peak. But these public files seem pretty mundane. There’s nothing, for example, that gives an inside glimpse into Dean’s sudden ascension to power after Governor Richard Snelling died in 1991. The files are stuffed with letters to constituents on subjects ranging from leghold traps to portable toilets at state rest areas. The files on hot-button issues – such as the civil unions debate or the sale of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant – appear to document events that are already well known.

As we leaf through the files, Archivist Gregory Sanford stops down for a look. Dean is the third governor that Sanford has dealt with on their gubernatorial papers. He says that the closed files seldom contain embarrassing information.

(Sanford) “With our limited experience with executive privilege records, there doesn’t appear to be anything that is of embarrassment, if that is a criteria. My understanding in negotiating with several recent administrations now, is that it’s a desire protect the decision making process, the free flow of ideas within an administration.”

(Dillon) The record of that free flow of ideas is the raw material of history. Sanford says he would have preferred to have all of the Dean documents made public sooner.

(Sanford) “Ideally from my professional point of view, the shorter the closing period, the better. I do think people do have a right to know and should have a desire to know what decisions their government makes on their behalf.”

(Dillon) Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says she actually has little legal authority to force the governor to unlock his records. She says Dean at first wanted his executive privilege files closed for 20 years, but later agreed to the 10-year time frame.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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