California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said late Tuesday his office will look into accusations that officials at a state university violated public records laws when they refused to reveal the financial details of a contract with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to speak at an upcoming university fundraiser, and allegedly shredded documents related to the agreement.
"This is not about Sarah Palin," Brown said in a prepared statement. "She has every right to speak at a university event, and schools should strive to bring to campus a broad range of speakers. The issues are public disclosure and financial accountability in organizations embedded in state-run universities. We're not saying any allegation is true, but we owe it to the taxpayers to thoroughly check out every serious allegation."
A state senator asked Brown's office to open the investigation after students at Cal State University Stanislaus reported finding documents in a dumpster related to the Palin speaking appearance, which is scheduled for June. They accused university officials of discarding the documents in an effort to hide the details of the contract with Palin, which is reportedly worth $75,000 to the governor, and includes provisions that require luxury accommodations and first-class travel arrangements. The senator, San Francisco Democrat Leland Yee, had asked the university to justify the expense at a time when the state is struggling financially.
University officials said they had not been informed of the attorney general's investigation, but said they believe it will show they acted properly and they will cooperate fully.
But the university's president, Hamid Shirvani, defended the decision to invite Palin to speak, and told ABC News that university officials did not attempt to destroy any documents.
"We have absolutely never, nobody has been asked to shred any document regarding Gov. Palin," Shirvani said. "The smoking gun is really not a smoking gun."
The episode is the latest to ignite controversy in connection to a paid public appearance by the former Republican vice presidential hopeful. Palin has crossed the country making speeches as part of the lucrative career that followed her decision to step down as Alaska governor in July. In many instances she is warmly received. But in others, as when she was offered $100,000 to speak at a Tea Party event, the payments have become the source of fascination and disagreement.
Shirvani said he believes objections about Palin's appearance, scheduled for June, are about political ideology. "It has nothing to do with how much money we're paying Gov. Palin," he said.
The university's quasi-private fundraising arm reached out to Palin to serve as the keynote speaker at its fundraising gala, figuring she would draw interest and attention. That much of the plan was a success, Shirvani said, noting that the $500-a-plate event sold out weeks ago. What he said he did not bargain for was the political backlash.
Students, advocacy groups, and Sen. Yee all raised questions about the propriety of paying Palin to speak at a time when state budgets were under siege. Despite several requests, formal and informal, Shirvani said he could not reveal the details of the foundation's deal with Palin because of a confidentiality clause. If they violated the clause, he said, Palin would cancel.
On Tuesday, students from the school revealed that they found documents related to the agreement in a dumpster behind an administration building on campus.
A university vice president told ABC News that she believes a version of the agreement made public by university students Tuesday may have been stolen.
"We believe, and campus police are investigating, that someone broke into my office and stole the document from my recycling bin," Susana Gajic-Bruyea said in an email to ABC News.
The attorney general's office pledged to get to the bottom of the situation, saying its expanded inquiry will seek to determine whether the university foundation, which has assets of more than $20 million, is spending its money to benefit the campus, as it promises donors, the university and the public.
"We are taking this action to make sure that the money raised goes toward the intended educational purposes and not a dollar is wasted or misspent," Brown said. "Prudent financial stewardship is crucial at a time in which universities face vastly decreased funding and increased student fees."