Watchdog group sues over Palin speaking contract

By Chris Rizo | Apr 16, 2010

Sarah Palin (R)

Jerry Brown (D)

TURLOCK, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-A lawsuit was filed Friday against a California public university over its refusal to disclose details about its confidential agreement with national Republican figure Sarah Palin -- a brouhaha that sparked an investigation this week by the state attorney general.

The lawsuit against California State University, Stanislaus was filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court by the Center for Public Forum Rights, an open-government watchdog group also known as CalAware.

The Carmichael, Calif.-based group is seeking information about the contract Palin has with the Central Valley campus to attend the school's upcoming black-tie fundraiser.

Under wraps are the fees that the California State University Stanislaus Foundation is paying the former Alaska governor and Fox News Channel personality to attend the 50th anniversary gala for California State Stanislaus on June 25.

"The university was given every opportunity to disclose the records before this suit was filed," said CalAware lawyer Kelly Aviles. "Unfortunately, university administrators chose to deny the existence of those records. Now, instead of using public funds for education, the university will spend those much needed funds defending a lawsuit created by its own lack of transparency."

The university has said it is bound by a non-disclosure clause to keep confidential Palin's fee, which officials have said will not be paid with public money. Palin, the 2008 Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee, is rumored to be getting more than $100,000 to attend and speak at the $500-a-plate fundraiser.

"This litigation is not meant to discourage Governor Palin from appearing and speaking her mind," CalAware General Counsel Terry Francke said. "If no public funds were used and funds were truly raised from private specially solicited contributions, the amount she is paid would be of little public concern, if it results in a net gain in funds available to the University. However, many speculate that this may not be the case and only a public review of documents relating to her appearance can confirm that."

Hoping to quell the mounting controversy, which has captured national headlines, Stanislaus State's president, Hamid Shirvani, has asked Palin's booking agent, the Washington Speakers Bureau, to disclose her speaking fee.

The university foundation, which is funding the dinner and dance, invited Palin to the fundraiser. The private organization reportedly expects the event to raise $100,000 to $200,000 for the school. The university's president serves as chairman of the foundation's board of trustees.

CalAware's lawsuit comes just days after state Attorney General Jerry Brown said his office will investigate the foundation and the alleged dumping of documents related to Palin's planned visit.

Brown said Tuesday that his probe will seek to determine whether the foundation, which has assets of more than $20 million, is spending its money to the Central Valley campus's benefit, as it promises donors and others.

"We are taking this action to make sure that the money raised goes toward the intended educational purposes and not a dollar is wasted or misspent," Brown said. "Prudent financial stewardship is crucial at a time in which universities face vastly decreased funding and increased student fees."

The Democratic attorney general and gubernatorial candidate was asked by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, to investigate the school's arrangement with Palin after the CSU Stanislaus Office of the President rejected his and CalAware's public-records request related to Palin's upcoming appearance.

Yee has accused CSU Stanislaus of violating the public trust by not disclosing the fees it will give Palin. As a 501c3 entity, the school's foundation is not subject to the state's open-records law.

"Our public university executives need to stop acting like they are running private country clubs and personal slush funds," Yee said Friday.

Hoping to boost public oversight and accountability, Yee has reintroduced legislation that would force campus foundations and schools' auxiliary organizations to comply with the California Public Records Act. Yee's proposal is outlined in Senate Bill 330.

Last year, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar proposal by Yee, saying Senate Bill 219 would have had a "chilling effect" on campus organizations and would have hindered private donations to the groups.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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