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 ignored repeated requests by CalAware to clarify whether it has Palin-related records in its possession, instead referring the request to the CSU Stanislaus Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose job is to raise funds for the campus’s scholarships, research and other projects.  Although such foundations were declared by a court in 2001 to be outside the reach of the Public Records Act, the same decision ordered Foundation documents to be made public when they were held by the University.

“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.”

For far too long CSU foundations have hidden their financial dealings behind their non-profit status, while providing up to 20% of all funding to the CSU system.

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.

Past practices of similar foundations have, at times, clearly benefited some of their own board members and university presidents, to the detriment of the institutions they were created to serve.  Such practices are only possible when the public’s oversight is diminished by the veil of secrecy under which these university auxiliaries have been allowed to operate.

“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 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.