Pundits can debate the political costs and benefits of Sarah Palin's decision to step down as Alaska governor, but the monetary advantages of leaving her $125,000-a-year public service post are beyond dispute.
Since leaving office at the end of July 2009, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee has brought in at least 100 times her old salary – a haul now estimated at more than $12 million -- through television and book deals and a heavy schedule of speaking appearances worth five and six figures.
That conservative estimate is based on publicly available records and news accounts. The actual number is probably much higher, but is hard to quantify because Palin does not publicize her earnings. She reputedly got a $7 million deal for her first book, with the bulk of that money due after her resignation as governor, and will earn about $250,000 per episode, according to the web site The Daily Beast, for each of eight episodes of a reality show about Alaska for the The Learning Channel. She has managed to keep a lid on reliable figures for her earnings from a multi-year contract with Fox News and a second book deal with HarperCollins.
A Palin aide responding to questions from ABC News said the governor "is now a private citizen. As a result, her fees and earnings are private."
While book and television royalties are huge earners, Palin, 46, has taken on a breakneck schedule of public speaking engagements, booked through the Washington Speakers Bureau. Her typical fee is $100,000, according to a January report in Politico, though she accepts a somewhat smaller fee for events on the West Coast because they are easier to get to from Alaska. Speakers Bureau officials did not respond to emailed questions.
Palin appears to select audiences that are likely to provide a warm welcome. In February, Palin coupled a paid speech to the Daytona Chamber of Commerce with an appearance at NASCAR's Daytona 500 and a local book signing, and was welcomed with cheers of "We love you, Sarah!" In the past nine months, she has stopped in to address the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, the Complete Woman Expo, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, and the Sierra-Cascade Logging Conference, among others.
Speaking fees have long provided a steady income to big-name elected officials who have left the political main stage. President Reagan once got $2 million from a Japanese manufacturing company for two 20-minute speeches. Bill Clinton collected some $40 million in speaking fees during the six years following his presidency. And George W. Bush told reporters he expected to make a "ridiculous" amount of money on the speaker's circuit when he left office.
But for Palin, who by some accounts is still nurturing a political career and possible 2012 presidential bid, the decision of when to charge for her appearances and when to headline an event for free is proving nettlesome. And it has turned into grist for controversy.
She did not charge fellow Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann for an appearance at a fundraiser in Minnesota last week, for instance. And she has indicated that she will not collect fees for speeches at certain charitable functions. At the same time, a report in the Hamilton Spectator quoted organizers who said she would be paid "in the ballpark" of $200,000 to speak at a fundraising dinner for the Juravinski Cancer Center and St. Peter's Hospital outside of Toronto.
One of the event organizers, Gabe Macaluso, told the Spectator that landing Palin was "quite the coup." The appearance brought a local backlash – the newspaper conducted a non-scientific online survey asking readers if they would pay to see her? More than 1,600 voted and 90 per cent said no. But the charity event, with tickets running $200, sold out.
Palin's $100,000 tab for a Nashville speech to Tea Party activists in February was cited in a lawsuit against organizers by the man who provided a $50,000 down payment for the expense, but who then was not permitted to attend. Bill Hemrick, a wealthy conservative and founder of the Upper-Deck baseball trading card company, told ABC News the suit against Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips is still awaiting a response. Palin later said her fee would go to charity.
In California, state lawmakers have criticized officials at California State University, Stanislaus, for agreeing to pay an estimated $75,000 to Palin so she can keynote a fundraiser for the school. And when they asked the university to provide the details of the contract with Palin, university officials refused because they said the contract included a confidentiality provision.
"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," said state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat.
Yee's chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, told ABC News that the senator has called on the state attorney general's office to force the university to disclose how much is being spent to bring Palin to the school. University officials have remained defiant. University Vice President Susana Gajic-Bruyea sent an email March 29 to students defending the choice.
"The board wanted to bring a keynote speaker who would attract significant interest and, therefore, drive ticket sales," she wrote. "Sarah Palin is that type of speaker, whether or not people agree with her politics, and we expect this event to be a tremendous fund-raising success."