California State University, Stanislaus violated public records laws, according to a Stanislaus Superior Court judge, though the university maintains it did not have the requested documents.
The ruling, made by Stanislaus Court Superior Court Judge Roger Beuchesne on Wednesday, finds that CSU Stanislaus should have disclosed Sarah Palin’s contract to speak at the University Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Gala fundraiser in response to a March 31 records request from open government non-profit CalAware.
Following the ruling CSU Stanislaus will be forced to pay court costs – estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars – and release the contract, as well as any other previously unreleased documents relating to Palin’s visit. The university will also be required to produce documentation of any reimbursements CSU Stanislaus will seek from the foundation.
“This ruling upholds California citizens’ right to maintain oversight and control of their government,” said CalAware’s attorneys Kelly Aviles, Dennis Winston and Terry Francke in a release. “Public oversight is the only way that citizens are assured that public money is handled in an appropriate manner. We are hopeful that this will prompt CSU to reevaluate the way in which it handles public records requests in the future.”
Beauchesne’s ruling takes issue with two aspects of the university’s response to CalAware’s Public Records Act request.
First, Beauchesne found that the university did not produce records when requested, in violation of the act. The university claimed it had no documents responsive to CalAware’s March 31 public records act request, but after a second, April 9 CalAware request and subsequent, April 15 lawsuit CSU Stanislaus produced more than 3,000 pages of records. Beauchesne ruled the university should have released those documents in response to the first request, though the CSU has argued most documents were created after the March 31 request, and that the narrow scope of the early request did not cover the majority of the released documents.
Beauchesne also concluded that Palin’s contract should have been included in the 899 documents released by CSU Stanislaus on May 11.
“The reasonable inference from the evidence produced is that the university, in its official capacity, has ‘used’ the contract between the Washington Speaker’s Bureau (with Ms. Palin and the CSU Foundation) in the conduct of the public’s business; therefore said contract is also a public record and should have been produced to Petitioner,” wrote Beauchesne.
Following the ruling CSU Stanislaus maintained that it has never seen the contract, as the fundraiser was organized entirely by the CSU Stanislaus Foundation – a non-profit auxiliary that oversees private gifts to the university. Such foundations are not subject to the Public Records Act.
Beauchesne’s ruling recognized that foundations are not subject to the Public Records Act, but argued that a March 31 e-mail exchange between CSU Chancellor Charles Reed and Bernie Swain, president of the Washington Speaker’s Bureau which represents Palin, indicated the university had seen the contract.
“We find his interpretation regarding the university’s ‘use’ of the contract regarding Sarah Palin’s appearance at the 50th anniversary gala at California State University Stanislaus to be very puzzling,” said University Counsel Dawn Theodora. “It appears that the judge, without direct evidence, made an assumption based on one e-mail exchange that the Chancellor had in fact actually seen a copy of the contract, when that is not the case.”
When the documents were released, Claudia Keith, CSU spokesperson, said that 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.”
Theodora went on to say that the CSU complied fully with CalAware’s original requests, and that the university was “disappointed” with the ruling. She said the CSU would request the CSU Stanislaus Foundation disclose the contract, as the university has never had a copy.
On Thursday, the Foundation provided CSU Stanislaus with a copy of Palin’s contract, the contents of which were largely already known due to the discovery of a draft contract in a CSU Stanislaus Dumpster by two university students and the July 16 release of accounting records, including Palin’s $75,000 speaking fee. The university provided the document to CalAware late on Thursday to comply with Beauchesne’s ruling.
The ruling and release of the contract were lauded by State Senator Leland Yee (D – San Francisco), the author of a bill which would require university foundations to be subject to the public records act. Yee’s bill awaits Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature before becoming law.
“This is a great day for transparency and government accountability,” said Yee. “However, it is also a sad day when a public institution so grossly violates state law and when their legal counsel is ignorant of the public records statute.”
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