Californians Aware, whose mission includes the promotion and defense of the principles of open government, filed a lawsuit today in Stanislaus County Superior Court against California State University, Stanislaus. The lawsuit seeks an order from the court requiring the University to disclose records relating to the planned appearance of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin at the University’s 50th Anniversary Gala. The action also seeks a judicial declaration that the University, which has denied having records responsive to CalAware’s requests, violated the California Public Records Act.
“The University was given every opportunity to disclose the records before this suit was filed,” said Kelly Aviles, an attorney for Californians Aware. “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.”
California State University, Stanislaus President Hamid Shirvani responded to the lawsuit filed by Californians Aware by stating “The University has complied with all legal obligations when responding to Public Records Act requests regarding the University’s 50th Anniversary Gala. The CSU Stanislaus Foundation also responded to Public Records Act requests for a copy of the Palin contract and speakers fee by stating that as a 501c3 foundation, it is not subject to the Public Records Act. Raising money to support university and student programs is exactly why the California Legislature established the ability for universities to created private foundations. The CSUS Foundation’s sole aim is to raise private funds to support student scholarships and programs. Given declining state support for higher education, private fund raising is more vital than ever. The Foundation has stated that it will provide the net costs and net revenue of the event.”
“We’re not surprised by Californians Aware’s lawsuit and look forward to resolving this issue in court. We have a responsibility as the University’s Foundation to carefully adhere to governing laws and arrangements,” said CSU Stanislaus Foundation President Matt Swanson. “Like every Foundation in the California State University system, our Foundation was established and is governed by the law created by the California Legislature to supplement and support student and University programming. The main goal of our Foundation is to raise much needed resources to support students, especially at a time of massive budget cuts and shortfalls.”
Senator Leland Yee has been working for transparency and fighting for the disclosure of the amount that Sarah Palin is to be paid for speaking at the CSU Stanislaus 50th Anniversary Gala.
Senator Lee’s website states:
The Foundation sought out Palin as a speaker and will be paying her, it says, out of funds solicited specifically for that purpose, and not with taxpayer funds. But the Foundation is a virtual alter ego of the University, with its office in the campus administration building, using University equipment and other resources, and with a staff comprised of University employees. The President of the University, Dr. Hamid Shirvani, is chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. By law he must examine and approve all expenditures made by the Foundation. The University’s Vice-President for Advancement is the Foundation’s Executive Director and the University’s Vice-President for Business and Finance is the Foundation’s Treasurer. For all intents and purposes, the Foundation and University are indistinguishable.
Matt Swanson said “The Foundation is not a state agency and is not subject to the Public Records Act, which has been the case for decades. Additionally, our contract with Gov. Sarah Palin’s representative, the Washington Speakers Bureau, required we sign a confidentiality agreement that legally prohibits us from disclosing the details of her speaking engagement.”
“We invited Gov. Palin to headline our 50th Anniversary Gala because she is a compelling public figure and a leading political voice who we hoped would ensure a successful event at a time when philanthropic dollars are scarce. The Gala is sold out and currently has a waiting list, which we are trying to accommodate. That puts us on track to meet our fundraising goals,” said Swanson.
“This litigation is not meant to discourage Governor Palin from appearing and speaking her mind,” said CalAware General Counsel Terry Francke. “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.”
CalAware believes that the University’s denial of having documents responsive to public records requests is called into question by the recovery of part of the Palin contract by several students from a trash bin outside the campus administration building last Friday. Despite a government ordered furlough that day, financial records were allegedly seen being discarded by student workers called in for that purpose.
A senior campus financial officer has admitted having had the contract fragment in her office recycling bin, but officials are suggesting that it was stolen and somehow made available to the students who reported the shredding and trashing to state Senator Leland Yee, who had made his own public records request for access to the Palin-related documents. The Attorney General, at Senator Yee’s request, has opened an independent investigation into whether the CSU Stanislaus Foundation is complying with other laws governing its role as a public charity in raising and managing funds for campus support.
CSU Stanislaus President Hamid Shirvani responded when the Attorney General announced there would be a broad investigation regarding shredded documents that allegedly included details to Sarah Palin’s speaking contract and were thrown out by university staff.
“We welcome the investigation and expect it will clarify how a foundation document could have ended up in a state senator’s hands,” said CSU Stanislaus President Hamid Shirvani.
Shirvani said “Vice President For University Advancement Susana Gajic-Bruyea also serves as executive director of the Foundation and, in that role, was responsible for reviewing draft and final versions of the Foundation’s contract with the Washington Speakers Bureau. Drafts that were discarded were noticed missing from her office and the matter has been referred to the Stanislaus County District Attorney, City of Turlock Police and University Campus Police as well. We are not able to comment on an active police investigation.”