MONTPELIER, Vt. – A government watchdog group on Wednesday increased the political pressure on Democratic front-runner Howard Dean (search) to unseal some of the records from his 11 years as Vermont governor.
The Washington-based Judicial Watch said it would file suit in Washington County Superior Court in Montpelier, Vt., arguing that the sealed records should be opened to the public. The organization joined several of Dean's presidential campaign rivals and leading Republicans in calling on the former governor to live up to his straight-talk stance.
"Further political considerations are not a basis for withholding documents, government documents certainly," said Judicial Watch President Thomas Fitton. "It may be good politics, but it ain't good law."
Following two days of criticism, Dean campaign spokesman Jay Carson said the candidate is exploring ways to make the documents public, "looking into the options, what options there might be to balance transparency with the legitimate privacy rights of others."
At issue are about 145 boxes of sealed correspondence and other records from Dean's tenure as governor, from 1991 to this past January. State officials agreed with Dean to keep the documents private for 10 years after he left office, enough time if Dean won the presidency and was re-elected.
Two of Dean's predecessors made similar arrangements, although those governors only required six years.
Carson said "the vast majority" of Dean's records are open for public viewing in the Vermont state archives. Dean gave the state archives 190 boxes — roughly 600,000 pages — that were available to the public after he left office.
Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, who is a Democrat, said Wednesday that even if Dean were to decide immediately to unseal his private papers it would take some time to process the material before they could be open to the public.
Based on the type of records that are sealed, Markowitz said her office would have to consult with Vermont's attorney general to determine when other exemptions from the public records law — aside from gubernatorial executive privilege — might apply.
The materials could "include personal information, or information about personnel, or members of the public who have used government services," which would mean they would still be exempt from disclosure, she said.
Democratic candidate Joe Lieberman (search) criticized Dean on Monday, arguing that sealing the gubernatorial records is "not the way to build public trust — especially after three years of secret-keeping and information-blocking by George W. Bush."
Another Dean rival, John Kerry (search), said: "As president, openness will be the hallmark of my administration, not some talking point."
Julie Peterson, who was Dean's chief of staff during his last years in office, said there was no effort "to overly hide things from the public at all."
"You don't actually get to seal the majority of records, just those sensitive parts that apply to other people," Dean said. "President Bush sort of takes the cake for his sealing. He actually had his sent, as I understand it, to his father's presidential library, where there's a 50-year seal."
Dean said: "I'll unseal mine if he'll unseal his."
Bush's gubernatorial documents are in the custody of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and most of them are open under Texas public record laws. After Bush's term as governor ended, the documents were sent to his father's presidential library at Texas A&M University. The documents were moved back to archive them.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, in a trip to Vermont Tuesday in which he criticized Dean on military issues, challenged the Democrat to open the one-third of his gubernatorial papers that are under seal.