Officials accused of destroying public documents on Palin visit

Palin and her sponsors probably won't be able to wink this one away.

The lesson of political scandals from Watergate through Monicagate is that the cover-up is often worse than the original crime, and that could once again prove true with the simmering conflict over large speaking fees that CSU-Stanislaus has agreed to pay Sarah Palin, particularly given new revelations that university officials might have destroyed public documents that had been requested by Sen. Leland Yee.

At a press conference convened by Yee this morning, two university students told the story of being informed by fellow students that administrators were shredding and disposing of documents in an administration building on Friday, which was particularly strange because the campus was shut down for a state-mandated furlough day.

So a group of five students started digging into a dumpster adjacent to the building that was being used that day and gathered all the documents in there, some shredded, some intact. And among those documents, they say, were pages four through nine of a contract with the Washington Speakers Bureau, which represents Palin. And although they don't mention her by name, they reference "air travel for two between Anchorage, Alaska and event city." (Read the document here) Palin -- the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate who has become a darling of the Tea Baggers and other right-wing populists -- is scheduled to speak at a $500 per plate fundraising on June 25.

That was precisely the kind of document that Yee and attorney Terry Francke of Californians Aware had recently requested of the university through a California Public Records Act request, although their response from the university last week was that it had no documents responsive to their request.

So Yee asked the Attorney General’s Office to look into the matter, which could be what triggered the document destruction session, with officials fearing they might get caught in a lie. The CPRA allows for civil penalties for refusing to disclose public documents, while the Penal Code indicates willful destruction of public records may be considered a criminal act.

“This is an issue of accountability and transparency that is fundamental to our democracy,” Yee told reporters, calling the actions “unconscionable” and “reprehensible.”

Yee has been a strong critic of secrecy in the CSU and UC systems, and has unsuccessfully tried to pass laws requiring college foundations to be bound by open government and public records laws. That’s an issue in this case considering it’s the CSU-Stanislaus foundation that is hosting Palin’s visit, although Yee has pointed out that the university president and other top officials control the foundation, which uses campus facilities and resources.

“What we’re finding is with more and more of these foundations, there’s unethical and illegal stuff going on and nobody knows what’s going on,” Yee said, citing as an example the indictment of former City College of San Francisco chancellor Phillip Day for illegally laundering public funds for private use through the foundation.

But if the students’ story holds up, it now appears that the university itself was in possession of the documents that Yee requested, the first evidence that it wasn’t just the foundation that was involved with the Palin visit. 

Francke told reporters that he plans to file a lawsuit over the matter this week, depending on what the AG’s Office does. “Our purpose is to get a court decision that regards these documents as university documents and not just foundation documents,” he said.

Calls to the CSU-Stanislaus and the AG’s Office have not yet been returned, so check back for more details later.