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Calif. nonprofit sues to obtain Palin contract

A California open-government group has filed a lawsuit against a state university for failing to disclose documents related to a planned speech by Sarah Palin.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A California open government group filed a lawsuit Friday against a state university over its refusal to disclose documents related to a planned speech by Sarah Palin.

Californians Aware filed the lawsuit in Stanislaus County Superior Court against California State University, Stanislaus, seeking an order by a judge to release information about Palin's contract with the school's nonprofit foundation.

The former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate is scheduled to visit the Central Valley campus in June. Palin is now a commentator for the Fox News cable television network,

The university has repeatedly denied public records requests filed by Californians Aware, a state lawmaker and The Associated Press seeking Palin-related documents. It says contract negotiations were handled by its foundation, which it claims is legally exempt from the California Public Records Act.

Palin's fee and accommodations will be covered entirely by private donations, not state funds, foundation board president Matt Swanson has said.

A 2001 state appeals court case ruled university foundations and auxiliary organizations are not subject to the same public disclosure requirements as universities themselves. However, the court also ruled that foundation documents must be made public when they are in the university's possession.

Californians Aware described the CSU Stanislaus Foundation as a "virtual alter ego" of the university. All but one member of the foundation's staff and several officers on its board are university employees, and the headquarters of the foundation is located in the university's main administration building.

Several CSU Stanislaus students said they retrieved a portion of the contract with Palin from a trash bin outside the campus administration building last week.

The five-page document included perks such as first-class airfare for two, deluxe hotel accommodations and bottled water with bendable straws. In addition, all audience questions after the speech had to be prescreened and posed by a designated representative.

The students presented the contract along with piles of other paperwork, some of it shredded, to state Attorney General Jerry Brown on Tuesday.

Later that day, Brown's office announced it would investigate the CSU Stanislaus Foundation's finances and alleged dumping of documents.

CSU Stanislaus president Hamid Shirvani said the document had been taken from a recycling bin inside the office of a vice president who also serves on the foundation board. He has asked police to investigate the alleged theft.

University spokeswoman Eve Hightower said Shirvani has also asked the Washington Speakers Bureau, which arranges Palin's speaking engagements, to reveal her speaking fee to help quell the controversy.

The agency has not yet responded to the request, Hightower said. It has not returned phone calls or e-mails from the AP seeking comment over the past two days.

Swanson has said a nondisclosure clause in Palin's contract prevents him from divulging her compensation package. He has not responded to requests for comment related to the investigation or the lawsuit.

State Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat, has called for university foundations to be included under the state's public records act.

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