MONTPELIER — Retired state archivist Gregory Sanford remembers the horde of opposition researchers crammed into his tiny offices, digging for dirt on the former Vermont governor whose long-shot bid for the presidency was suddenly gaining steam.
“It was a colossally brutal experience, because we really weren’t set up at that time in that building to take in that number of researchers who hunkered down for a long time working for a competing candidate,” Sanford says. “At one point a staff member took her coat off the rack and realized someone was hunched down behind the coat rack speaking into a cellphone.”
The executive privilege invoked by Howard Dean before his exit from state government in 2003 would prevent his political enemies from accessing the entirety of the trove of documents chronicling his nearly 12-year tenure.
But the decadelong seal on Dean’s gubernatorial records expires today. And at 9 this morning, documents that had once generated so much intrigue will be available to anyone willing to make a drive to the new state archive in Middlesex.
“Howard hit the big time, and all these documents that we hadn’t really thought much about suddenly became the central issue of the campaign,” recalls the longtime Dean aide Kate O’Connor. “It was absolutely crazy.”
Criticized by opponents in the 2004 presidential primary, Dean took a public beating for the order to seal — though Richard Snelling and Madeleine Kunin had done the same before him. The sealed records became a national story that would dog the Democrat until his unceremonious withdrawal from the election shortly after his infamous defeat in Iowa.
Archivist Scott Reilly doesn’t anticipate a long line of reporters or political operatives waiting to pounce on the 93 boxes of Dean records when he unlocks the doors today. But he hopes curiosity will generate some traffic to what he says is a valuable historical record.
“Looking at all the things that happened over what was really a long tenure, there were some very important events,” Reilly says. “You had civil unions, (the education financing law) Act 60, Sept. 11. I think these records will really shine a light on how some of these policies were actually developed.”
There was also a high-profile health care reform effort in the 1990s, a financial scandal over a parking garage at Fletcher Allen Health Care and the development of the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County.
For a guy who took so much heat over his decision to seal the records, Dean isn’t sweating their release now. In a telephone interview Wednesday, he said he invoked executive privilege on the advice of his counsel and out of a duty to protect the names of the innocent.
“During the civil unions debate, for example, I might have gotten a letter from someone saying, ‘Dear Governor, I’m gay and I appreciate all the things you’re doing,’” Dean says. “And at that time, that person might not want to be outed by some researcher for the Gephardt campaign.”
A law on Vermont’s books since 1864 requires governors to preserve for posterity their official correspondence and other documents related to their tenure. But the ability of a governor to postpone their release wasn’t established until 1991, when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that Kunin, who was then governor, had rights to protect certain information under executive privilege.
“And it’s only then that this practice of sealing for a certain period of time began,” Sanford says.
Kunin chose to seal her records for six years; Snelling records were kept under wraps for the same amount of time.
Dean was out of state, on the campaign trail when his administration staff and legal counsel packed up the paper trail of his years in office. He says only about 20 percent of the records were sealed under executive privilege and that he can’t remember much about what might be in there.
“The purpose of executive privilege is not to keep the executive from being exposed. It’s to keep the people who advise the executive from being exposed,” Dean says. “My personal style was to say what I damn well pleased anyway. My only concern is if someone said something confidential or revealed their innermost secrets, that that’s now going to be fair game.”
The documents were at one point sought-after enough to spur a lawsuit from a national conservative group demanding access under the state’s open records law. The Vermont Supreme Court denied Judicial Watch’s complaint.
Had she known the records would generate such controversy, O’Connor says she would have spent time going over them before they were sealed. The records were packed up long before Dean became a household political figure.
“We didn’t even know what we were supposedly hiding,” O’Connor says. “People thought Howard and Kate looked at every document and picked out all the ones they didn’t want coming out while Howard was running for president. That wasn’t true.”
Reilly says his office has spent the past four months prepping the documents for their release, in an effort to create a more user-friendly experience for people looking to navigate the thousands of records.
Much of the documents are correspondence; there are things labeled “governor’s reading pile” — items handed to him for review. The records include notes from advisers on a variety of issues, monthly activity reports from commissioners and secretaries, and documents related to proposed legislation.
“Governors’ records to my mind are greatly underutilized,” Sanford says. “I think there are very useful, insightful records in there, but we don’t really get a lot of use of them. I’m hoping that’s going to change.”
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