IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

University president says Palin contract stolen

A California university president says a portion of a contract between a school foundation and Sarah Palin for an upcoming speech was stolen from a campus administrator's office last week.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A California university president said Wednesday a portion of a contract between a school foundation and Sarah Palin for an upcoming speech was stolen from a campus administrator's office last week.

California State University, Stanislaus president Hamid Shirvani said the five-page document at the center of an escalating controversy over access to records was taken from a recycling bin inside the office of Susana Gajic-Bruyea, vice president for university advancement.

"Susana threw the pages into her recycling bin in her office some time ago," Shirvani said in a phone interview. "Somebody either broke into her office to get them or it was somebody who had access to her office."

Shirvani has asked police in the Central Valley city of Turlock to investigate the matter.

The state attorney general's office announced Tuesday it would investigate the university and its foundation for their handling of the contract related to the June 25 speech by Palin. Authorities said the investigation has nothing to do with Palin herself.

Contract had nondisclosure clause
The university told state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, it did not have any documents related to the speech and said it had referred the matter to Matt Swanson, board president of the California State University, Stanislaus Foundation.

Swanson sent letters to Yee and The Associated Press stating that Palin's contract had a nondisclosure clause. He also said university foundations and other auxiliary organizations were not subject to the same public records requirements as the university itself.

Swanson has not responded to requests for comment on the investigation. He has said the Palin event would be funded entirely by private donations.

The investigation by state Attorney General Jerry Brown was launched after two students said they had found pages of the contract in a campus trash bin.

Ashli Briggs, 23, one of the students, said Shirvani's theft allegation was completely unfounded.

"It's a sad day when the university is accusing its own employees, it's own students of committing a crime," she said.

Shirvani said Gajic-Bruyea was one of two people in possession of the contract document. In addition to her role in the university administration, she serves on the foundation board and was therefore privy to contract negotiations, he said.

He said the students' claims that the documents had been thrown away were preposterous and described the controversy over Palin's appearance as political theater.

"We're getting attacked over political ideology," said Shirvani, who is also chairman of the foundation board. "If it was Michael Moore or Al Gore, forget it, nobody would ever ask us about the contract."

Calls for greater transparency
The investigation sparked a new round of calls for greater transparency and financial accountability in organizations embedded within California's public universities, particularly given the size of their assets.

"Prudent financial stewardship is crucial at a time in which universities face vastly decreased state funding and increased student fees," Brown said while announcing his investigation.

The 93 auxiliary bodies and foundations at California State University campuses control $1.34 billion, according to the CSU chancellor's office.

In 2009, CSU spent 40 percent of the money raised by its auxiliary organizations — or $570 million — on instruction, research and academic support, according to Lori Redfearn, CSU's assistant vice chancellor for advancement services. The rest was used to fund other campus services, including $41 million for scholarships, she said.

"Our auxiliaries play a vital role in making sure we can provide the best educational experience possible for our students," Redfearn said. "We hope a particular incident doesn't overshadow all the vital work these organizations are doing."

The nonprofit university foundations, which raise money to supplement student fees and state funds, are subject to university oversight and provide regular financial reports to campus leadership.

CSU auxiliary organizations present their budgets annually to the president's office at their respective campuses.

Not bound by the same rules
One court ruling said foundations were not bound by the same public disclosure requirements as universities.

In the 2001 case involving Fresno State University, a state appeals court ruled that auxiliary associations were not subject to the California Public Records Act because the act offers only a limited definition of what constitutes a public body.

Lawmakers and the union representing college professors have criticized the loophole, saying it has allowed foundations to escape proper scrutiny.

Last July, the California Faculty Association sent a letter to Brown asking him to investigate allegations of mismanaged donations. Those included more than $9.6 million in loans made by a Sonoma State University foundation to a former board member — the first payment coming two days after he resigned in 1995.

In October, Brown's office informed the foundation it was conducting an audit.

"There has been an explosion of these very private — one could almost say secretive — foundations," California Faculty Association president Lillian Taiz said Wednesday. "I don't know that there are problems at all of them, but incidents seem to crop up almost monthly."

Brown, a candidate for governor, said he would seek to determine whether the CSU Stanislaus Foundation, which has assets of more than $20 million, is spending its money to benefit the university.

Yee has sponsored legislation that would require campus foundations and auxiliary organizations to adhere to public records requirements. The measure passed the Senate in January and awaits an Assembly hearing.