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.
California State University, Stanislaus and its private foundation violated the stateâ€™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 administrationâ€™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 â€śin the conduct of the publicâ€™s business.â€ť
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 Schwarzeneggerâ€™s desk to expand the lawâ€™s reach.
â€śIâ€™m a little disappointed that the judge didnâ€™t find that the CSU Foundation itself was not also susceptible to the public records act,â€ť he says. â€śThe 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.â€ť
Other campuses â€“ including Sonoma and Fresno State â€“ have dealt with accusations of impropriety with their private foundations allegedly hiding and illegally using public funds, says Barbara â€śOâ€™Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. â€śThe question is, what implication will this have for public attitudes and legislation now on the governorâ€™s desk?â€ť she says.
The suit's plaintiffs were happy with Thursday's decision, saying in a statement that it "upholds California citizensâ€™ rights to maintain oversight and control of their government."
â€śPublic 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.â€ť
â€śThis is a great day for transparency and government accountability,â€ť said Yee. â€śHowever, 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.â€ť
Officials from CSU Stanislaus declined to comment for this story.