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Inquiry of university group widens

Alleged document shredding prompts deeper scrutiny of Cal State Stanislaus Foundation.

April 14, 2010|By Carla Rivera
  • Cal State Stanislaus students Alicia Lewis, left, and Ashli Briggs with shredded documents that reportedly contained information about Sarah Palin's appearance on campus.
Cal State Stanislaus students Alicia Lewis, left, and Ashli Briggs with… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said Tuesday that he was launching an expanded investigation into the finances and actions of a Cal State Stanislaus foundation that has invited former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to give a speech, after allegations that it may have illegally discarded documents related to the event.

Brown already was investigating whether the Cal State Stanislaus Foundation violated the California Public Records Act when it refused the request of state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) to hand over documents related to Palin's speaking fee and other aspects of her scheduled June 25 appearance.

The broader investigation will look into whether funds raised by the foundation -- which has assets of more than $20 million, according to Brown -- are being used for educational purposes.

Brown said his office also will examine documents, apparently part of a contract with Palin, that several Cal State Stanislaus students say they discovered late last week in a campus trash bin. Brown said he wanted to determine if the documents were authentic and how they ended up in a bin next to an administrative building.

None of the documents, which carried the letterhead of a company that represents Palin in her speaking engagements, refer directly to the former governor or say how much she is being paid. Brown said the fee could be as high as $100,000 based on her fee for an appearance in Nashville.

The contract specifies "round-trip, first-class commercial air travel for two between Anchorage, Alaska, and event city," accommodations, including a one-bedroom suite and two single rooms in a deluxe hotel, and plenty of bottled water and "bendable straws."

Brown's office has recently sought records of several other university foundations after allegations of financial improprieties.

"This is not about Sarah Palin," the attorney general said in a statement Tuesday. "She has every right to speak at a university event, and schools should strive to bring to campus a broad range of speakers. The issues are public disclosure and financial accountability in organizations embedded in state-run universities."

Palin could not be reached for comment. Officials with the Cal State campus and the Cal State Stanislaus foundation denied any wrongdoing.

"It's a dark day when an entity that's sole purpose is to raise money for student services and university programs is falsely accused of wrongdoing," foundation President Matt Swanson said.

And Russ Giambelluca, vice president of business and finance at Cal State Stanislaus, said no one there had been instructed to destroy documents related to Palin's speech.

Brown's announcement was the latest twist in a controversy that has pitted open-government advocates who want to know Palin's speaking fee against the campus and foundation, which refuse to divulge it.

At a Sacramento news conference, two students said Tuesday that soon after Yee's request for information was turned down, they received a call from sources, informing them that documents were being destroyed.

Several students then retrieved a number of shredded and intact documents, including a contract addendum dated March 16 with letterhead of the Washington Speakers Bureau, which represents Palin.

"We were very shocked that documents such as these that the university had in their possession would be discarded like this," said Alicia Lewis, 26, one of the students who found the papers. "We started making contacts right then to make sure the documents were put in the right hands."

Lewis said the students knew about Yee's interest in the case and contacted his office. The Palin visit has become a test case for Yee and other open-government advocates over the transparency of foundations and other nonprofits affiliated with public universities. Yee is sponsoring legislation, SB 330, that would require them to adhere to the Public Records Act.

The nonprofits contend that state access laws do not apply to them because they are private.

Swanson, the foundation president, has said that no public funds are being used for the Palin appearance and that the Speakers Bureau requires that the financial terms remain confidential.

Yee said the refusal to turn over the documents strikes at the heart of government accountability and transparency.

"The issue is not about Palin nor about the foundation trying to raise money for a good purpose," Yee said. "It's about the principles of our government. How do we hold the CSU foundation accountable if they don't tell us what's going on?"

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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