CSU must reveal Sarah Palin speech contract, judge rules

Beyond its dumpster diving intrigue, the Sarah Palin speech contract case touches on the legal issues that arise when public universities partner with private foundations.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Sarah Palin speaks at California State University, Stanislaus on June 25. The foundation arm of the cash-strapped California public university paid the former Alaska governor $75,000 to speak at a 50th anniversary gala.

California State University, Stanislaus and its private foundation violated the state’s public records law when they withheld a speaking contract for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin earlier this year, a judge has ruled. The CSU Stanislaus case gained attention last spring when faculty and students expressed alarm over the high speaking fee the university might pay former Governor Palin to address a 50th anniversary fundraising gala.

State Sen. Leland Yee and an advocacy group sued after they were denied a public records request for the contract and any correspondence regarding Palin's visit. School administrators denied having correspondence about it, and students found shredded documents about the visit in the administration’s dumpster.

Palin gave the speech June 25, and was paid $75,000.

At issue in the suit was a 2008 state law stating that regardless of any contract term to the contrary, a contract between a private entity and a state or local agency is subject to the same disclosure requirements as other public records.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne agreed with the plaintiff, Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization established to hold government and other powerful institutions accountable for their actions. He held that CSU should have made the document public because the university used the contract “in the conduct of the public’s business.”

The case presented an opportunity to clarify the relationship between public universities and their private foundations under the public records act, says Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which is co-sponsor of legislation now on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk to expand the law’s reach.

“I’m a little disappointed that the judge didn’t find that the CSU Foundation itself was not also susceptible to the public records act,” he says. “The court was a bit surgical in specifically finding that the CSU Foundation was not a state agency for purposes of public records, allowing them to continue to operate in the shadows.”

Other campuses – including Sonoma and Fresno State – have dealt with accusations of impropriety with their private foundations allegedly hiding and illegally using public funds, says Barbara “O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “The question is, what implication will this have for public attitudes and legislation now on the governor’s desk?” she says.

The suit's plaintiffs were happy with Thursday's decision, saying in a statement that it "upholds California citizens’ rights to maintain oversight and control of their government."

“Public oversight is the only way that citizens are assured that public money is handled in an appropriate manner," said Californians Aware President Dennis Winston in a statement. "We are hopeful that this will prompt CSU to reevaluate the way in which it handles records requests in the future.”

“This is a great day for transparency and government accountability,” said Yee. “However, it is also a sad day when a public institution so grossly violates state law.... It is even worse, that university administrators attempted to blame students for their own negligence and misconduct.”

Officials from CSU Stanislaus declined to comment for this story.

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