SACRAMENTO -- Under a law that took effect last year, the public has the right to access the records of private foundations that are affiliated with University of California and California State University campuses and examine how they spend the hundreds of millions of dollars they raise.
Or at least that was the idea behind legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2011 that made the foundations subject to the California Public Records Act.
Supporters described the law as a win for open government, but questions have arisen about whether their records are any more accessible than in the past.
State Sen. Leland Yee sought the law to try to close a loophole in public records laws after the CSU Stanislaus Foundation refused to release its speaking contract with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2010. Students found portions of that contract with shredded documents in a campus garbage bin.
A judge ordered the auxiliary university group to release the information after a lawsuit. The contract included a $75,000 speaking fee and first-class airfare for two from Anchorage to California if she flew commercial. If not, the contract specified that the foundation provide a private plane. A donor flew Palin in via private jet.
The contract said Palin must be provided with a suite and two single rooms in a deluxe hotel near the campus. The foundation ultimately spent about $2,500 on Palin's hotel, security and a portion of her transportation to and from Turlock.
The former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate's June 25, 2010, appearance raised about $473,000 and netted the campus more than $207,000 for scholarships, making it the most successful fund-raising event in the campus's 50-year history.
"Just getting (foundations) to understand the importance of open government and transparency is a huge accomplishment already, just to get them to understand that they need to disclose when the general public asks them," said Yee, a San Francisco Democrat.
The Associated Press sought to determine the law's effectiveness in providing the types of information routinely available through state and local agencies under California's open records law. It tested how the law was being applied at several foundations and sought feedback from the legislation's advocates and its author.
What emerged was a daunting and sometimes frustrating exercise to detail even the most basic aspects of foundation spending.
The law did not establish uniform reporting requirements for the dozens of university foundations at the state's four-year higher education systems, creating a patchwork of efforts to comply with its disclosure requirements. Even determining how to contact the foundations and ask for the information can be a challenge.
The sheer scope of the foundation system is another obstacle.
The 23 CSU system campuses have 89 auxiliaries and foundations that control $1.6 billion, according to the CSU chancellor's office. The 10 University of California campuses have one foundation each with a total of $5.9 billion in assets, the UC Office of Institutional Advancement reports.
Like similar organizations affiliated with colleges across the country, they raise private donations, often from alumni, and spend it to support university functions. Some were formed to help students or campus projects, while others are used to operate food services or bookstores.
From cash to kitchens
Some foundations provide additional compensation for university presidents and top-level administrators, ranging from cash to kitchen remodels. While no taxpayer money is involved directly, the presidents and top officials at the universities are frequently listed as board members or president of the foundations.
The flow of private money through the state's higher education system has come under greater scrutiny because of ongoing tuition increases and faculty cutbacks at the institutions, which educate a combined total of 646,000 students.
No entity within the CSU or UC systems collects the foundations' financial information, but there are so many within the CSU that they formed their own group, the Auxiliary Organizations Association.
The AP requested documents describing or authorizing any payments on behalf of campus presidents and the next two top officials from foundations at San Diego State University, CSU Sacramento and the University of California at Davis. That included a request for information on payments made to or on behalf of family members for "automobiles, housing, renovations, salary, bonuses, health care and education."
The results showed wide variation in how much detail the groups provided.
A request for a foundation's budget, for example, produced four years' worth of detailed spending documents from California State University, Sacramento, which posts its audited financial reports online. In the case of the Campanile Foundation at San Diego State, the same request yielded just two years of its budget summaries, half-page documents with broad categories in which hundreds of thousands of dollars are listed for items such as "consulting fees."
Sunshine, but just a ray
"It's an opportunity, but it doesn't actually make the information public. It doesn't force them to be transparent," Alice Sunshine, communications director of the California Faculty Association, said of the new law.
People seeking information have to make highly specific formal records requests, but the public is at a disadvantage because so little is known about the foundations' operations.
"It's difficult to do that, because you have to really know what you want, which means you have to already suspect something in order to ask," Sunshine said.
The legislation requiring disclosure was supported by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, labor unions and the California Faculty Association. But anecdotal evidence from those groups indicates that few people have tested the law, perhaps because of the complex network of auxiliary groups affiliated with each of the campuses, the lack of uniform reporting and the difficulty in knowing how to begin.
Yee said he wants to see how the law works over time before proposing fixes. If the groups become less responsive or block the release of public information, Yee said he plans to pursue follow-up legislation.
"I hope that the university community understands that you've just got to be open and transparent about any activity relating to the university, its operations, its students and its administrators," he said.