CSUS group's politics diverse

The president of the nonprofit group bringing Sarah Palin to California State University, Stanislaus, donated $18,600 in support of her and Republican presidential candidate John McCain two years ago.

University President Hamid Shirvani, the nonprofit's chairman, liked Barack Obama. He gave $2,300 to the Democratic presidential nominee.

The donations reflect a range of political views on the university foundation's 28-member board of directors.

That board has been criticized by students and faculty over the past week for hiring Palin — one of the right's most polarizing and popular leaders — to speak at the university's 50th anniversary celebration and fund-raiser June 25.

Because it's a private group, the foundation is not subject to California open government laws that would compel a public school to disclose Palin's speaking fee. Typically, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate charges $100,000.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, wants to force the foundation to disclose the number. So does a pair of open government advocacy groups.

Foundation President Matt Swanson, a Turlock agricultural businessman, gave the most cash to Republicans in the 2008 election. Besides the money that went to political action committees backing McCain and Palin, he gave $12,700 to other GOP candidates, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Orange County pharmaceutical entrepreneur Milan Panic steered the most money to Democrats among the board members. He gave $33,100 to PACs that helped Obama, $23,900 to the Democratic National Committee and $6,900 to Hillary Rodham Clinton for the 2008 election.

Others who gave to the 2008 presidential candidates include Modesto land-use attorney George Petrulakis ($7,300 to different McCain committees), Fresno developer Darius Assemi ($4,600 to Obama) and Hilmar Cheese co-founder Bill Ahlem ($1,150 to McCain).

Most current board members did not return calls for this story. Swanson did not respond to calls or an e-mail. Shirvani was traveling and unavailable for comment, a university spokeswoman said.

A former foundation board member said politics do not drive its decisions.

"The fact is we're raising money to provide scholarships for students and this is going to be one of the biggest fund-raising events that Cal State Stanislaus has ever had," said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.

The foundation's 2008 tax return shows it raised $4.1 million and distributed close to $3 million in scholarships and assistance to the school.

Republicans typically do well on fund-raising trips to Stanislaus County. McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani visited the area for the 2008 presidential campaign.

In the general election, however, Obama outpaced Republicans here. Residents in ZIP codes beginning with 953 — an area that includes Stanislaus County, parts of southern San Joaquin County, and parts of Mariposa, Merced and Tuolumne counties — gave him $358,174 against McCain's $247,647.

Petrulakis said he doesn't expect Palin to sound any campaign themes at the June fund-raiser, a black-tie event.

But, he said Palin would be a key figure in upcoming congressional elections. She has been encouraging people to protest the health care reform bill, and to target Democratic seats that could go to Republicans.

"If Sarah Palin actively campaigns, I believe she could be instrumental in turning a number of blue seats red," he said.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.