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Stanislaus students to be honored by journalism society for uncovering Palin speaking documents

POSTED March 11, 2011 10:41 p.m.

Two California State University, Stanislaus students will be awarded the James Madison Citizen Award from the Society of Professional Journalists next week for their efforts to uncover a draft version of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s contract to speak at the University Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Gala Fundraiser.

Ashli Briggs and Alicia Lewis, both Political Science majors, were selected for the award by the SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.

“It was really exciting,” Briggs said of learning she would be awarded. “It was probably one the most exciting things that has happened to us in a while.”

The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards will be presented at a San Francisco dinner on Friday. They honor journalists, organizations, public officials and private citizens who have fought for public access to government meetings and records, and promoted the public’s right to know and freedom of expression.

“It’s just an honor to be recognized with such a positive award for something we did which is right,” Briggs said.

Briggs and Lewis uncovered the draft contract addendum at a time when public information groups like CaliforniansAware and State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) were lobbying the university to release Palin’s speaking contract. However, as Palin’s contract was with the foundation – a non-profit entity which oversees private gifts to the University – and not CSU Stanislaus proper, the university said the contract was not subject to public record laws and would not be released.

Briggs said a friend phoned on April 9, 2010, to inform her that “suspicious activity” was ongoing at the CSU Stanislaus Administration Building and that “administrators were destroying documents.” Briggs then called Lewis and five other friends to drive over to campus to investigate.

Upon arriving, Lewis said she saw numerous cars parked outside the Administration Building — despite the administration staff being furloughed on that day — and witnessed a student carrying a bag of garbage to a Dumpster. Lewis and Briggs examined the contents of the Dumpster and found shredded finance department documents dated March 28, 2010 mixed in with the unshredded pages 4 through 9 of a contract with the Washington Speakers Bureau.

The contract found did not specifically include Palin’s name, nor did it include the amount to be paid to the unnamed speaker. But Palin was represented by the Washington Speakers Bureau, and dates, time, and location, appeared to point to Palin’s June 25 appearance at the University Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Gala fundraiser.

Among the stipulations of the contract available in the five pages found were “Round-trip, first class commercial air travel for two between Anchorage, Alaska and event city, a one-bedroom suite and two single rooms in a deluxe hotel” including a “laptop computer and printer (fully stocked with paper) and high speed Internet” and “all meals and incidentals.” The contract goes as far as to mandate the availability of “bendable straws.”

Yee, a former James Madison award winner, said the find was a “smoking gun” which clearly indicated the CSU Stanislaus Foundation was “inextricably intertwined” with the university. He said the intermixing of the documents found indicated the foundation was operated by taxpayer-funded CSU Stanislaus employees, and should be subject to the California Public Records Act.

The university disagreed with Briggs and Lewis’ version of events, issuing a statement that the addendum of the campus’ contract with Palin was left in a recycling bin in the office of Vice President for University Advancement and Foundation Executive Director Susana Gajic-Bruyea . After hearing the document was found in a Dumpster, the university said Gajic-Bruyea searched for the document in her private recycling bin but found nothing.

Briggs and Lewis’s discovery prompted a state attorney general investigation into possible comingling of University Foundation and CSU Stanislaus, and Stanislaus County district attorney investigation into how the documents wound up in a CSU Stanislaus Dumpster. The district attorney’s office investigation cleared the university of illegal dumping, but was unable to determine if any crime had been committed or who may have committed the crime. Both Briggs and Lewis declined to be interviewed for the DA’s investigation.

Briggs said she hopes to become a state senator or attend law school, but that her interactions with the media have reshaped her view of the journalists who will be awarding her and Briggs on Wednesday.

 “Throughout this whole Sarah Palin thing I definitely have seen a whole different side of journalism, and I have a new respect for the profession,” Briggs said.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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