Bendy Straws? Palin Stanislaus Fracas Heats Up

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Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

To hear Ashli Briggs and Alicia Lewis tell it, dumpster diving really paid off.

This morning, the two Cal State Stanislaus students appeared at a Capitol news conference to say they had found six pages of the heretofore confidential contract outlining Sarah Palin's big speech in June for an event hosted by the university's nonprofit foundation.

And here's a particularly fun part: the intact documents, along with a few bags of shredded documents, were apparently all carried out for disposal by employees on a furlough Friday... thus making the bustle of activity all the more obvious.

Now, the real question: does this prove that the university -- not just the foundation -- has documents related to Palin's speaking fees and other compensation, documents administrators have previously denied having?

This saga began a few weeks ago, with Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF) and others wondering why Palin's compensation for appearing at the Turlock event on June 25 was not being disclosed. At issue is the somewhat cloudy relationship between the CSU Stanislaus Foundation -- a 501(c)(3) nonprofit -- and the actual taxpayer-funded university itself. Yee and open government advocates have insisted that the state's public records law is applicable to the foundation, while the nonprofit's leaders insist it isn't. Regardless, Yee is now carrying a bill in the state Senate to ensure foundations are covered by the law.

But today's developments will no doubt make this particular case a bit more tricky... and probably will help it attract a lot more national attention by both Palin lovers and haters.

When both Yee and the group Californians Aware filed a request under the state's Public Records Act for documents related to Palin's compensation for the speech, university administrators replied that they didn't have any documents.

John Myers

Photo: John Myers

But last Friday, some students noticing unusual activity on a quiet campus day went digging through the trash and found not only bags of shredded documents, but six pages of what appears to be the contract between the Washington Speakers Bureau (which represents Palin) and the foundation.

And here's where we get to the drinking straws, among other things.

No, they didn't find the pages relating to just how much Palin is getting paid. But they did find pages showing that the "speaker" (presumably Palin but not spelled out) is to fly either on a private jet or receive two first class commercial tickets ("between Anchorage, Alaska and event city") plus two additional business class tickets between California and "the lower 48 states." Perhaps Palin's flying in some guests?

(And news flash: Turlock doesn't have that kind of airport... which probably adds importance to the contract's requirement of ground transportation "by SUV(s) from a professionally licensed and insured car service.")

The documents recovered require that Palin have "unopened bottled still water" and "bendable straws" on stage for her speech. And the contract requires that all audience questions be collected in advance and be "pre-screened." No detail is left unmentioned, including the number of photos that should be taken in 45, 60, or 90 minute photo ops.

"We opened the dumpster," student Alicia Lewis told reporters today, "and [the contract] was mixed right in with all the university paperwork."

The students and Senator Yee are turning over the paperwork to Attorney General Jerry Brown, as part of Yee's quest to see whether the foundation does, or does not, have to comply with open records laws.

"How do we hold the CSU foundations accountable," said Yee, "if they won't tell you what's going on?" Yee said the lack of transparency isn't just about this speech, but extends to whether the university foundations are spending other dollars properly in support of the educational mission.

The Charity Navigator website lists the CSU Stanislaus Foundation as having assets of about $16.5 million as of 2007. Note, too, that the site describes the nonprofit as being an "auxiliary of the university." The foundation also operates on campus, and the email addresses of staffers are all university-based.

So far, no one else -- from the foundation's designated spokesperson to CSU Stanislaus to Palin's political action committee -- have responded to my requests for comment. Check back for any updates.

UPDATE 5:40 pm -- The university's media spokesperson promised a written statement by 4:00 pm that would speak for both the school and the foundation, but one never came. Meantime, a CSU Stanislaus employee (who didn't want her name used) emailed to say that over the last few years, the foundation staff was transitioned into "state positions," and that all foundation events are now coordinated by "state paid staff."

UPDATE 8:05 pm -- Two new items, the biggest being an announcement by Attorney General Jerry Brown that he's widening his investigation of the Palin contract dispute. "This is not about Sarah Palin," Brown said in a written statement. "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."

Also new... finally... a response, albeit very limited, from the university and the foundation -- via a university spokesperson. "It's a dark day when an entity that's [sic] sole purpose is to raise money for student services and university programs is falsely accused of wrong-doing," said CSU Stanislaus Foundation board chair Matt Swanson in an emailed response to Yee's news conference. In truth, however, Yee's main charge is that the foundation needs to be making documents public... which doesn't quite seem the same as "wrong-doing." Meantime, university VP Russ Giambelluca released his own statement that says, in part: "We should be clear that no one has been instructed to destroy vital documents on anyone’s behalf." That, of course, begs the follow up that can't be asked of an email: who did instruct someone to destroy documents, and who put the Palin contract in the dumpster... a university employee or a foundation volunteer? Many more questions on this story remain unanswered tonight.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • DarkSock’s Mangravy

    This is morally mortifying and reprehensible at every level of every fiber that binds our fragile country together. This reminds me of the time when Buffalo Beast was allowed inot the HoM briefly, for doing absolutely nothing.

    NOTHING!!

    It also hearkens back to ye olden days when I peed in a horse.

  • Fred

    Is that all there is? Who cares? I started reading the article because I thought there was a story. Fooled again!

  • America

    “This saga (smear campaign) began a few weeks ago, with Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF) and others wondering why Palin’s compensation for appearing at the Turlock event on June 25 was not being disclosed.

    America is wondering when the back room deals on Obamacare will be disclosed. Justice & equality for all! If Palin’s fee is exposed, the fee must also be revealed for Al Gore the Carbon Whore.

  • CSUS Student

    This political move by both the foundation and Palin are purley motivated by money and media attention. Both sides knew that this exact situation would happen to some extent. Honestly, if the foundation is making profit there is no harm no foul (which I’m pretty positive that they have made over double if in fact they paid 100 grand).
    I am speaking as a student who does not agree with the political intentions of Palin, and I am supporting her appearance!! Look at all the national attention that this is bringing to our campus and realize that our small community, outside of the campus, is utterly and completely conservative. There are a lot of people in this small town who would pay 500+ to see her speak. If this brings money to the campus, then so be it.

  • Ray a CSUS parent

    Sarah Palin = Hate-Speech for hire
    Her followers = Stupid morons
    Teabaggers = Toothless losers

    ‘nough said!!!