A conservative, Washington-based group formally requested yesterday that Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean release papers he had accumulated as governor of Vermont, nearly half of which have been under seal since he left office in January.
Dean, who served as governor for 11 years, negotiated an unprecedented 10-year seal on correspondence from his administration, saying at the time that he didn't want the documents made public because he feared embarrassing revelations in future endeavors.
In a letter to Dean, Thomas Fitton -- president of Judicial Watch, the group pushing for the document disclosure -- wrote, "Failure on your part to provide full disclosure of your records as governor raises disturbing questions concerning accountability and transparency."
Judicial Watch is exploring legal action, Fitton said in an interview. The group brought a legal challenge seeking the release of records detailing the activities of Vice President Cheney's energy policy task force. The public request for unsealing the documents was made as Dean attempts to craft an image as the plain-spoken candidate in the field of 10 Democrats.
In a written statement, the Dean campaign said: "The vast majority of his records have been made public, including all official correspondence, proclamations, declarations, pardons, extraditions, and appointments. Those documents currently under seal will remain under seal until January 2013 as per the agreement with the secretary of state."
It is not entirely clear which records Dean has sealed; he has not outlined their contents to the state. A review of documents that he did make available suggests that internal State House documents -- particularly those from him to his staff and vice versa -- have been withheld from public view.
Shortly before he left office in January, Dean told Vermont Public Radio: "Well, there are future political considerations. We didn't want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor."
In an interview with the Globe in July, he said in response to a request that he waive the seal: "No, it's sealed for a reason. Every governor seals their papers, and it's protective of a lot of people who have something to do with the governor's office."
Dean has come under fire before for not releasing records. When he was traveling the country in exploration of a presidential bid, three Vermont newspapers sued him for access to his schedule. Dean argued that the schedule was not a matter of public record because it involved matters unrelated to his duties as governor.
"Dean was trying to conceal from the public who he was meeting with and why he was meeting with them," said Robert Hemley, a lawyer who represented the newspapers: the Rutland Herald, Times Argus, and Seven Days.
In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled against Dean, saying the portions of the schedule concerning a potential presidential candidacy were subject to disclosure.
In sealing his papers, Dean invoked the doctrine of executive privilege, which the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1990 extended to governor's papers.
Theoretically, a governor could indefinitely seal his or her papers under the ruling, said Gregory Sanford, Vermont's archivist. In practice, governors have sought six-year seals. Madeleine Kunin, a Democrat, requested a six-year seal on nearly half her papers. The sealing period starts at the time of her departure from office in 1991. The papers of Richard Snelling, a Republican who died in office in 1991, were also sealed for six years.
Representatives of Kunin and Snelling initially requested 20- to 30-year seals, as did Dean. Dean agreed to 10 years in the course of negotiations, Sanford said.
A request by the Globe for the correspondence between Sanford and Dean's legal counsel relating to the sealing has been referred to the state attorney general's office, which is reviewing the matter and is expected to issue a decision next week.
Rules on access to gubernatorial papers are a patchwork across the country. Last year, Charles Shultz, a professor at Texas A & M University, found that of 42 state respondents, 29 states required their governors to place records in the archives, but that only 20 always did so.
Controversy arose over President Bush's decision to place the papers from his period as governor of Texas at his father's presidential library at Texas A & M, out of the reach of state archivists. Under Texas law, the governor's papers are public records. Open-government groups cried foul, and the attorney general ruled that the documents had to be turned over the state archives, where they are now being prepared for research and later will be shipped back to the Bush library, said Tonya Wood, an archivist.
In Massachusetts, the status of governors' papers is an open debate. Alan Cote, supervisor of records for the state, said: "Governor's records are not theirs. If they are not destroyed, they are turned over to the next governor or to the archives."
But he said there have been recurring discussions about which documents are considered public and which are not. "There is wide-ranging disagreement," he said.