Yee's two-fer: Bashing Palin while promoting sunshine

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Sen. Leland Yee scored a two-fer yesterday when he blasted a California State University organization for hiding how much it’s playing Sarah Palin for a speaking gig, raising an important sunshine issue and knocking Palin’s populism-for-pay schtick in the process. And at the heart of the issue is how public education institutions increasingly use foundations to avoid accountability.

That issue was recently raised in San Francisco, when City College Foundation sought to keep its financial dealings secret. The Guardian sounded the alarm last month, and City College Trustee John Rizzo, who led the fight for more sunshine, negotiated a more open arrangement that the Board of Trustees unanimously approved last week.

“We got most of what we wanted,” Rizzo told us. “Most of the things are open and they have to give us a quarterly report on donations.”

Yee – who the Society of Professional Journalist-NorCal recently honored with a James Madison Award for his struggles to promote greater government transparency and protections for journalists – has long been fighting for more sunshine in the CSU and UC systems, which is particularly important as they make deep cuts to higher education spending. For example, Yee’s Senate Bill 330 would explicitly require those systems to adhere to the California Public Records Act.    

“These are public institutions that should embrace transparency and accountability,” Yee said yesterday in a press release announcing his request that CSU-Stanislaus’s foundation disclose how much it is paying Palin for a $500 per head speech on June 25. The press release triggered a front-page story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, with CSU and foundation officials rebuffing Yee’s request.

So now, Yee gets to bash Palin and make an important stand for sunshine, both of which will likely help his nascent campaign to be elected mayor of San Francisco next year.

As Yee wrote in a letter to campus President Hamid Shirvani, who also serves as the chair of the foundation: “The sensational nature of former Governor Palin’s political commentary, coupled with an ongoing book tour, has allowed her to charge top dollar for speaking engagements. As was reported in the media, her speaking appearances typically command $100,000 per event. To that end, I request the foundation to respond to the following issues: 1. Is the former governor being compensated by the CSUS Foundation in any form for her participation in the event on June 25th?  If so, please describe the amount and nature of the compensation being awarded to the former governor.  2. Please disclose any contracts between the former governor and the CSUS Foundation involving the June 25 speaking engagement.”

Later in the press release, he added: “The CSU should immediately disclose how much money is being diverted from students to pay Sarah Palin’s exorbitant speaking fees. At a time when students are struggling to afford an education at CSU, I would hope that spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on a guest speaker for a black-tie gala would be low on the priority list.  Money that is spent on bringing an out-of-touch former politician to campus could be spent on scholarships and other financial assistance during these challenging budget times.”

Win or lose, this is the right fight for Yee, both morally and politically. Go git ‘er!