Documents disclosed by California State University, Stanislaus this week demonstrate a concerted CSU effort to quell media discussion of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s fee for speaking at a June 25 gala fundraiser.
Perhaps more telling are the documents not included in the disclosure, said Richard McKee, Californians Aware vice president for Open Government Compliance.
The majority of the 899 documents released, in response to a public records act request by government transparency nonprofit CalAware, are responses to media inquiries. But a number detail a more proactive approach to contain the story.
A March 22 e-mail from Eve Hightower, university spokeswoman, to CSU Stanislaus President Hamid Shirvani suggests the press release announcing Palin’s impending visit be released on a Tuesday, specifically when Journal and Modesto Bee reporters are busy with Turlock City Council meetings. The e-mail touts the tactic as forcing news coverage to be “basic and largely based on the press release” because journalists would not have time to conduct interviews before press time.
The Journal made contact with Hightower, but she did not respond to Journal questions regarding the university’s attempt to bury the story.
The counteroffensive continued in an April 17 e-mail from Nick Garcia of Ignite Consulting, where Garcia said he would “track the online response to the articles and work to insert our messaging on these news comment sites,” effectively admitting to shill commenting.
Hightower did not respond to questions on the nature of the university’s relationship with Ignite Consulting, nor did she elaborate on services Garcia had performed.
Undisclosed documents just as important
CSU Stanislaus’ Monday document release contained no planning discussion related to where the event should be held, expected attendance or estimated revenues.
"We received nothing regarding Palin's appearance fee or the costs associated with her contract,” McKee said.
CSU Stanislaus maintains that 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 access to the documents that CalAware is seeking, CSU officials argue.
Nonprofits, like the Foundation, are not directly subject to the public records act. Additionally, Palin’s contract has been said by Foundation members to include a non-disclosure agreement.
But CalAware argues that the Foundation and CSU Stanislaus are inexorably linked, sharing staff, facilities and resources. The potential use of public dollars in the operation of the nonprofit Foundation has already spurred a State Attorney General investigation into the Foundation’s finances.
State law requires Shirvani to review and approve all expenditures made by the Foundation — including Palin’s speaking contract — according to a lawsuit filed by CalAware to force disclosure of the Foundation Palin documents.
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. A 2001 state appeals court ruling on a similar case forced Fresno State to release documents controlled by an auxiliary, which state employees had access to.
“There is no doubt that the CSU Stanislaus president’s office violated state law by refusing to disclose documents requested by Californians Aware, as evident by the documents released yesterday,” said State Senator Leland Yee (D – San Francisco), who has been leading the charge for the release of the Palin documents. “… The law is very clear and the courts have ruled that foundation documents in the possession of university employees are subject to the California Public Records Act.”
Yee went on to say he is “certain the Attorney General’s investigation and the CalAware lawsuit will hold these campus executives legally accountable.”
The separation of Foundation and university — or lack thereof — became clearer with the release of Monday’s documents.
A Feb. 24 e-mail exchange amongst the documents sees Susana Gajic-Bruyea, vice president for University Advancement and executive officer of the Foundation Board of Directors, e-mail CSU Stanislaus President and Foundation Chair Hamid Shirvani to set the Gala’s date. Gajic-Bruyea’s e-mail was sent from a CSU Stanislaus account.
The university did not respond to questions asking whether Foundation employees are allowed to use university e-mail to conduct Foundation business.
In an April 21 e-mail, university spokesperson Eve Hightower states that she drafted the Foundation letterhead.
Hightower did not respond to questions regarding her status as a Foundation employee, or whether she conducts work for the Foundation as a CSU Stanislaus employee.
An e-mail exchange, dated March 31, features CSU Chancellor Charles Reed discussing a possible release of Palin’s sealed fee with Bernie Swain, president of the Washington Speaker’s Bureau, which represents Palin.
“The release of the fee, while well-intentioned to share all details, will likely only serve as the financial headline for a new round of stories rather than the intended purpose of clearing the air and making the stories go away,” Swain wrote. “Your event needs fewer story lines, less oxygen for the fuel, not more.
“We believe, as others have said, any real damage has already been done and after a few days these inquiries and stories will slowly, but surely, end.”
Reed responded, “Bernie, I agree with you that the damage is already done and the disclosure (of Palin’s fee) will just cause another round of newspaper stories.”
According to Claudia Keith, CSU spokesperson, Reed and Swain are “college buddies” from their days at George Washington University. She said Reed contacted Swain of his own accord, without having seen the contract and with no direction from the Foundation, to request the contract be disclosed “in the interest of disclosure.”
“It was a personal call and a personal favor,” Keith said. “…We were just looking for an avenue whereby the Foundation would be not obligated to keep the fee from being disclosed.”
University spokesperson Kristen Olsen forwarded Reed’s e-mail to Shirvani’s executive assistant, Hightower, Gajic-Bruyea, and Foundation President Matt Swanson.
“Good news. The chancellor is satisfied with not disclosing the fee,” Olsen wrote.
The documents obtained by CalAware are viewable online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/31175081/CSU-Document-Production-5-10-2010
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