SACRAMENTO — Piled high in an aging warehouse on the USC campus is an odd collection of memorabilia left behind by one of California's most colorful and controversial governors, Democrat Edmund G. Brown Jr.
It is an eclectic collection of about 1,600 cartons packed with letters, videotapes, memos and pamphlets that comprise the legacy of the Jerry Brown era.
More than five years after he left office, however, Brown's decision to donate his papers to the private university is stirring controversy amid charges by Secretary of State March Fong Eu that the action violated state law and sets a bad precedent for future governors.
Eu has threatened to sue if USC does not return the collection to the State Archives within 30 days. University officials, in response, have turned to their powerful friends in the Legislature, sponsoring a bill that would put the stamp of legitimacy on the donation by allowing Brown to ignore a 1975 statute declaring most gubernatorial papers to be public.
"It's not our intention to give them up," declared Houston I. Flournoy, a former Republican state controller who is USC's chief Sacramento lobbyist.
Arguing that the bill would not set a precedent for future governors, Flournoy said USC is not trying to bypass state law but is attempting to "forestall a lawsuit. . . . We've had the papers for nearly six years, and we've spent a certain amount of money on storage and in cataloguing them. We'd just prefer not to have a lawsuit."
There is an odd aspect to this tug of war over the papers. The key players on the university's side are unlikely allies of the former governor and probably would have been happier if Brown was never elected.
First, there is Flournoy, a Republican who was beaten by Brown in a particularly bitter 1974 race for the governorship. "It merely indicates I was an academician before I was a politician," Flournoy said in explaining his role as a protector of Brown's legacy.
Then there is Assembly GOP leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, a conservative Republican and USC alumnus who spent much of his early years in office cursing the Brown Administration's liberal politics. Nolan, who once said his biggest thrill in life was dressing up as USC mascot Tommy Trojan and riding in the 1974 Rose Parade, refused to discuss his efforts on behalf of the Brown papers.
And then there is USC itself, a university that has been unable to shake its identification with the Republican Party ever since half a dozen of its graduates turned up as central figures in the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon's Administration.
But while the politics may be an uncomfortable fit, all sides agree that keeping Brown's papers at USC will provide the university with a shot of academic prestige.
"Having the records of a governor, especially one such as Jerry Brown whose political future is unknown, is a matter of status to them," said Tony Miller, Eu's chief lawyer. "It's an invaluable collection and an important historical record. And it could become even more important if (Brown) moves up or back into politics."
Before deciding on USC, Brown Administration officials reportedly considered six locations, including the State Archives and University of California, Berkeley. However, the University of California declined Brown's offer because of inadequate space, and State Archives officials said the governor's top lieutenants balked at placing the papers with them after they refused to hire Lana Beckett, a former Brown aide, to oversee the collection.
USC ultimately was selected because it offered "the best deal," one aide said, which included tighter "security for the papers." The university also hired Beckett but insists that she competed for the job.
Brown's decision to donate his papers was not in itself unusual. Before World War II, documents left behind by governors were widely scattered. But Govs. Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight agreed that the best place for their papers was the State Archives.
Later, however, Jerry Brown's father, Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, donated his papers to UC Berkeley, and Ronald Reagan left his to the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
But Eu argues that Jerry Brown's donation is different because it came after 1975 when Brown himself signed into law a bill that declared legislative and gubernatorial papers to be "public records."
An exception was made for "personal correspondence" and memos from the governor's legal affairs secretary. USC and Flournoy maintain that the Brown papers fall under this exception and that the law was not meant to deal with the donation of a gubernatorial collection.
The problem is no one but Brown's closest aides have any idea what is contained in the collection. An index of the documents has not been completed, and, under an agreement between the former governor and the university, none of the papers can be opened to public inspection for 50 years.
Although such agreements are not unprecedented, private and public archivists said most former governors have placed no restrictions on their collections or closed them for relatively short periods of time. Reagan, however, required the Hoover Institution to keep his papers under wraps indefinitely.
Because Brown's consists of about 4 million individual documents, archivists contend that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for it to consist exclusively of the kind of personal and legal correspondence exempted from the disclosure law. That view is bolstered by memos sent to various state agencies before Brown's departure asking that material be contributed to the governor's collection.
"This was not just stuff off Jerry Brown's desk," said John Burns, chief of the State Archives. "There was material from other departments and agencies way outside of what would be considered his own included in what he called his papers.