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Cash-strapped California public university paid $75,000 for Palin speech

By Associated Press
Saturday, July 17, 2010 13:35 EDT
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Capping a long-running dispute, a cash-strapped California public university revealed Friday its foundation arm paid Sarah Palin $75,000 to give a 40-minute speech at a recent anniversary dinner for the campus.

The former vice presidential candidate’s appearance drew intense criticism and scrutiny after officials refused to disclose the terms of her contract to speak at the black-tie gala that ultimately netted major donations for California State University, Stanislaus.

University spokeswoman Eve Hightower did not fully explain what prompted the sudden release of the former Alaska governor’s speaking fee, which officials previously had maintained was confidential.

In a statement, campus administrators proclaimed the event to be the most successful fundraiser in the school’s history, saying it raised more than $207,000 for scholarships — an unexplained increase from the previously released figure of $60,000.

“During these difficult economic times, I am especially proud that we have received an unprecedented level of private support,” campus President Ham Shirvani said. “Thanks to the foundation’s generosity and fundraising, our 50th Anniversary Fundraising Gala was a huge success.”

Details about Palin’s contract to speak at last month’s event first came to light in April. Students fished part of what appeared to be the contract from a rubbish bin after hearing administrators were engaged in shredding documents.

That prompted California Attorney General Jerry Brown to launch an investigation into the finances of the university foundation and allegations that the nonprofit violated public disclosure laws.

The material recovered by the students detailed perks such as first-class airfare for two, bendable straws and deluxe hotel accommodations. The document, dated March 16, did not include compensation details for Palin, who often commands speaking fees as high as $100,000.

The Washington Speakers Bureau, which negotiated the contract, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Palin spokesman Doug McMarlin declined comment.

Hightower said Friday the foundation also spent about $2,500 on Palin’s hotel, security and a portion of her transportation to and from the small town of Turlock. A donor flew Palin in via private jet, and she paid for her own hair appointment, Hightower said.

Ashli Briggs, who helped retrieve the documents from the trash, said the public deserved to know the information months ago.

“Why did they try to keep it a secret for so long, and now release the figure out of nowhere?” asked Briggs, 23, a senior studying political science. “Our schools are hurting, students are hurting, and to charge that kind of money for a speech I still feel is a bit absurd.”

The university, like dozens of other public colleges, has had to cancel classes and do away with some scholarships as a result of California’s ongoing financial woes. Faculty was cut by about 20 percent last fall, and some instructors are teaching twice as many students, said John Sarraille, a computer science professor who heads the local chapter of the California Faculty Association.

Palin finally delivered the speech on June 25 and used it to criticize her detractors, as some picketed outside. A local tea party chapter greeted her with fanfare, waving American flags.

Palin told the well-heeled crowd inside the dressed-up dining hall that higher education needed a stronger focus on civics and constitutional liberties, and that college students had better things to do than dive through trash bins to learn how much money she was making.

State Sen. Leland Yee, one of CSU’s most vocal critics, said key information, including how much money was paid to campus workers to erect security fences around the cafeteria, also should be released.

“This is just the latest example of why we need greater transparency at our public universities,” said Yee, who is sponsoring a state bill that would require campus foundations and auxiliary organizations to adhere to public records requirements.

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Associated Press Writer Robin Hindery in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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