- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

MIDDLESEX, Vt. — In a nondescript warehouse here are 146 boxes of letters, memos and other documents from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s days in office.

Although he maintains that no “smoking gun” is hidden anywhere in the boxes, Mr. Dean has made extraordinary requests to keep them sealed and refuses to release them now as he runs for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The portion of documents from his 11 years as governor has become the focus of Republicans eager to dash Mr. Dean’s straight-talk image and a prize for fellow Democrats running for their party’s nomination, hoping to pick off the emerging front-runner.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and a rival for the party’s presidential nomination, accused Mr. Dean of taking “an extra long walk from straight talk.”

Mr. Lieberman’s campaign is using the flap to attack Mr. Dean in a television advertisement this weekend. In the 30-second ad airing in New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary, Mr. Lieberman says, “We Democrats are better than that.”

The state archivist dismissed Mr. Dean’s original request that the records be sealed for 24 years. Mr. Dean ultimately settled for the records to be sealed for 10 years — past the four-year grace period afforded to most other recent Vermont governors.

Mr. Dean apparently had visions of the White House in mind when he asked that the records be sealed.

“Well, there are future political considerations,” Mr. Dean told Vermont Public Radio before leaving office in January. “We don’t want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in a future political endeavor.”

Mr. Dean’s campaign has since said the former governor was talking off the top of his head as he is sometimes known to do. Last week, Mr. Dean swore off talking about the records altogether and told reporters that he didn’t want to say anything for which he would have to apologize later.

When the issue first arose, Mr. Dean vowed that he would show his sealed records if President Bush, former governor of Texas, showed his first.

“I will unseal mine if he will unseal all of his,” Mr. Dean said.

Mr. Bush’s gubernatorial records are almost entirely public, but the state has more stringent requirements for viewing them than does Vermont.

Anyone wanting to view the Texas records must describe the exact document. “Here we just lay them out and let you go through them,” said one official with the Vermont secretary of state’s office.

The Dean campaign has said it is reviewing ways to release at least some of the records. Campaign officials say they are confident nothing incriminating will surface.

Mr. Dean has said the records must be kept private because many of the people who dealt with him as governor assumed their dealings would remain private, at least for a period of time. The example he has given is a letter from a Vermont resident with AIDS.

Political strategists say that even if there isn’t any “smoking gun,” the records release issue has created headaches for the Dean campaign.

The 146 boxes of papers would provide an enormous opportunity for opponents trying to trip up Mr. Dean on a variety of issues that he hadn’t considered for several years. The papers also might allow opponents to pin down Mr. Dean on every conceivable issue that came up during his governorship — something that would be distracting to a campaign far more interested in talking about its meteoric ascent nationally.

The Washington-based group Judicial Watch sued Mr. Dean last week over the records.

“Dean’s political ambition, rather than any legitimate concern about protecting the deliberative or policy-making process, was the driving force behind efforts to withhold large portions of the governor’s papers from public scrutiny,” Judicial Watch charged in its lawsuit.

Ironically, the Dean campaign welcomed the lawsuit as an opportunity to stop talking about the records and return to Mr. Dean’s rise to the front of the Democratic field. The issue now is legal as well as political.

In a conference call Friday, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi was asked about the records. The normally open and talkative Mr. Trippi tightened up and referred to a Wednesday press release.

“Late this afternoon, the campaign received a lawsuit from Judicial Watch and is in the midst of reviewing it,” he said. “Therefore, we have no further comment at this time.”

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