Palin arrives at Calif. campus amid controversy

Pat McMahon Contributor
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TURLOCK, Calif. — Sarah Palin took aim at those who questioned her gala appearance at a cash-strapped California university Friday, telling hundreds of donors that her detractors wasted time picking through trash seeking details about how much she was paid to speak.

The former Alaska governor’s headline address at the 50th anniversary celebration at California State University, Stanislaus has prompted both intense criticism and scrutiny since it was first announced, and also attracted sizeable donations for the public school that asked her to come.

Officials have refused to divulge the terms of her contract or her speaking fee, and some details only came to light after students fished part of what appeared to be Palin’s contract from a rubbish bin.

“Students who spent their valuable, precious time diving through dumpsters before this event in order to silence someone … what a wasted resource,” she said, speaking before the well-heeled crowd dining in the campus cafeteria.

“A suggestion for those dumpster divers: instead of trying telling people to sit down and shut up … spend some time telling people like our president to finally stand up.”

The material recovered by the students, which detailed perks such as first-class airfare for two and deluxe hotel accommodations, prompted California Attorney General Jerry Brown to launch an investigation into the finances of the university’s foundation arm and allegations that the nonprofit violated public disclosure laws.

“Jerry Brown and friends, come on. This is California,” Palin retorted. “Do you not have anything else to do?”

The California democrat said Palin was wrong to politicize the inquiry, which he said would be objective.

“I don’t think she understands the process. It’s not about Sarah Palin,” he said Friday. “It’s about the operation of the foundation to see if they handled things professionally.”

Officials say the university foundation that organized the fundraiser is legally exempt from public records requirements.

In preparation for the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate’s arrival, workers transformed the dining hall into a glitzy Gala Hall, draped with crimson tablecloths, festooned with orchids and surrounded by chain-link fences.

“We cannot believe the stuff that has gone on with our campus over Sarah Palin’s visit,” said Alicia Lewis, 26, who was one of the team that retrieved the paperwork from a trash container in April. “Now they’re fencing the campus off? It’s outrageous.”

University spokeswoman Eve Hightower said the extensive fencing and extra security were standard procedure for large campus events, and said the university had remained open to students going to class.

Last month, CSU Stanislaus released dozens of documents in response to California Public Records Act requests from The Associated Press and the open-government group Californians Aware.

The paperwork included e-mails documenting the university’s efforts to limit public fallout over Palin’s visit, but it did not include information about her contract. Palin has commanded fees as high as $100,000.

Friday’s sold-out dinner will bring in more than $200,000, making the gala the most successful fundraiser in the university’s history, said university foundation board president Matt Swanson. Cooks prepared a five-course meal featuring lobster napoleon, scallops, and grilled Angus beer tenderloin with red wine sauce, accompanied by a wine selection from local Central Valley vintner E. & J. Gallo Winery.

“We’re not here to make a political statement, we’re here to make money,” said Swanson.

The funds will help pay for scholarships and a variety of pressing campus needs, which the foundation will determine after consulting with university officials, officials said.

About 100 protesters stood outside on the campus’ leafy grounds raising up a Sarah Palin-shaped pinata and signs lettered “Spill, Baby, Spill” and “Open The Books,” and chanting about school budget cuts.

“I was expecting quite a few protests,” said Palin, who was accompanied by her daughter Willow. “It’s been nothing but absolute loveliness here in this part of California, in spite of some of the hoopla around this dinner.”

The rural university, like dozens of other public colleges, has had to cut some classes and cancel several scholarships as a result of California’s ongoing financial woes.

A group of about 30 Palin supporters from local tea party chapters also came to campus Friday afternoon, waving large American flags and carrying placards that read “Support Free Speech.””The campus is spending thousands and thousands of dollars to hire a divisive political figure to come here. There’s something wrong with that, when they’ve turned away people for scholarships,” said Josh Esteves, a protest organizer with Valley Progressives, a local left-leaning political group.

Palin has endorsed former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive Carly Fiorina in her bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, but a Fiorina spokeswoman said Palin would not be making any stops on behalf of the campaign.

Associated Press Writer Terry Collins in San Francisco also contributed to this report.