California State University, Stanislaus officials say a Carmicheal, Calif. based nonprofit jumped the gun in filing an April 15 lawsuit seeking the release of documents relating to Sarah Palin’s upcoming June 25 appearance at the University's 50th Anniversary Gala Fundraiser.
"There has been a great deal of misinformation and confusion surrounding the appearance of Sarah Palin at the CSU Stanislaus 50th Anniversary Gala, and we would like to explain the true facts,” said Dawn Theodora, counsel for California State University. “The CSU system regularly complies with requests made through the Public Records Act. The act clearly stipulates response timelines that we strictly follow and adhere to.”
Californians Aware, an organization dedicated to open government and the free exchange of information, says the University forced the lawsuit after “protracted avoidance” of public records act requests.
The argument hinges on whether an April 9 public records act request from CalAware constitutes a second request or a clarification of an earlier, March 31 request.
Under public records act guidelines, the University has 10 days to respond to a public records act request. CalAware filed suit against the University on April 15 – just six days after the April 9 request, but 15 after the initial March 31 request.
"It is highly unusual and irregular for a requester to sue a state agency while the agency is still within the 10 day response time allowed by the public records act,” Theodora said. “We have been very responsive to these requests and will continue to act promptly in our search to respond."
Theodora announced this week that CSU attorneys have thus far located 899 records in response to CalAware’s request. Most of those are electronic communications dealing with media inquiries and facility issues, Theodora said, and 738 of the 899 were produced after April 6 — well after the initial March 31 request.
“We are continuing our extensive search for all records related to the planned appearance of Sarah Palin, and as a result, may be notifying CalAware that there are additional records,” Theodora said.
But those documents — which have yet to be made available to the public — aren’t likely to include some records sought, including Palin’s speaking contract.
The CSU Stanislaus Foundation — an independent nonprofit auxiliary that oversees private gifts to CSU Stanislaus — is solely responsible for Palin’s impending visit. As such, the university proper does not have the details that CalAware is seeking, CSU officials argue.
Nonprofits, like the Foundation, are not directly subject to the public records act.
But those seeking records of Palin’s visit, including State Senator Leland Yee (D – San Francisco) say the “misunderstanding” is just a CSU attempt to prevent releasing documents that should be public.
The Foundation and CSU Stanislaus share employees, office space, and resources. Yee says that means CSU employees have access to the documents, and that they should be subject to the public records act.
“CSU Stanislaus administrators are more concerned with covering up the facts and putting up smoke screens than with protecting the public trust,” Yee said. “Chancellor Reed should immediately take action to hold these administrators accountable.”
CalAware’s first, March 31 public records act request, specifically requested copies of “all University records, other than those specifically prepared for public release, concerning the planned appearance of Sarah Palin as guest of honor at the University’s 50th Anniversary Gala on Friday, June 25.”
An April 6 response to the request from Gina Leguria, campus compliance officer, stated that CSU Stanislaus had “no documents that are responsive to” CalAware’s request.
According to Theodora, CSU officials interpreted the request as seeking only non-public documents pertaining directly to Palin’s visit. As all such documents were either foundation property or already public — like a March 29 e-mail “clarifying rumors” about the event sent to a faculty and staff mailing list — the university had no responsive documents.
Three days later, on April 9, the University received what it considered a second public records act request from CalAware, but CalAware considers a clarification of its initial request. That request asks for a copy of Palin’s speaking contract and “any and all public records … in possession of any University official or employee, regardless of whether those officials or employees are also officers or employees of the University Foundation, which in any way relate to Sara Palin's appearance at the University's 50th Anniversary Gala on June 25, 2010.”
The April 9 letter also states that CalAware would consider legal action if all records were not identified and produced by 5 p.m. on April 13.
On April 15 CalAware filed suit against CSU Stanislaus under the California Public Records Act, seeking a court order requiring the University to release documents related to Palin’s upcoming visit. A day later, Leguria notified CalAware counsel that the university would make available any public records it had related to the broader second request.
According to CalAware’s lawsuit, three university staff members — President Hamid Shirvani, Vice President for University Advancement Susana Gajic-Bruyea, and Vice President of Business and Finance Russ Giambelluca — were required to review the Foundation’s contract with Palin. While all three hold non-voting roles within the Foundation — chairman, executive director and treasurer, respectively — each was required by state law and the Foundation’s own policies to review the Palin contract in their role as University employee, per the suit.
If state employees working for a state organization reviewed the contract, the lawsuit argues, it becomes public record regardless of the Foundation’s nonprofit status.
“The law is clear — foundation documents in the possession of university employees are subject to the California Public Records Act,” Yee said. “CSU denied these records existed in complete violation of state law.”
The University maintains it has followed the law, and that university employees did not review documents relating to Palin’s visit while working in their roles as university employees.
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