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August 30, 2010

Ashton: Palin visit benefited foundation critic's case

Nothing could've been better for state Sen. Leland Yee's campaign to force California State University foundations to open their books than Sarah Palin's June visit to Turlock.

The best example came Thurs- day, when CSU, Stani- slaus, had to hand over Palin's contract for the gala she head- lined, a document it insisted it didn't have because it belonged to the nonprofit foundation that supports the campus.

That contract was signed by Susana Gajic Bruyea, the school's vice president for university advancement and an executive for the foundation. She helpfully wrote both of her titles under her signature.

Gajic Bruyea can have two jobs with distinct responsibilities. But in this case, it's hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.

Palin's contract made that point -- and Yee's -- exquisitely.

For a decade, scrutiny has intensified on CSU foundations such as the one that paid Palin $75,000 to speak at the Stanislaus fund-raiser and anniversary gala. In the worst examples, the foundations become a sort of slush fund for administrators with money coming in and blurry accounting about how it's used for the schools.

Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, routinely points to accusations that the CSU, Sacramento, foundation helped pay for the campus president's home repairs. He also highlights a $1.25 million loan the CSU, Sonoma, foundation gave to one of its former board members.

CSUS wasn't misusing funds

That kind of misuse of money that was intended to help students wasn't happening at CSU, Stanislaus. The Stanislaus foundation played by the rules, and -- with Palin's help -- it carried out an event that raised $207,000 for scholarships.

But the campus was left defending a system that allowed for errors such as the ones in Sonoma and Sacramento when Palin's star power drew the attention of Democratic leaders such as Yee and interest from journalists up and down the state.

Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in April demanding Palin's contract through the California Public Records Act. Its effort forced the university's hand last week when Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne sided with CalAware.

Gave momentum to bill

The confidentiality clause in Palin's contract that kept her speaking fee secret until after her June 25 visit also lent momentum to a bill Yee had submitted to compel college foundations to comply with the California Public Records Act.

Gov. Schwarzenegger rejected the same bill a year ago over his concerns that it could discourage charitable giving, but Yee thinks it's been modified to pass muster this time.

"It is time for CSU to embrace common sense transparency policies instead of spending taxpayer dollars fighting to keep the public in the dark," Yee said in a news release crowing about Beauchesne's decision.

Thank Mama Grizzly for lending an assist to Yee's campaign for open government.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.

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