Sarah Palin not the first to rack up a big fee for speaking at CSU Stanislaus

WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin would not be the first to command a hefty fee from the foundation established to aid Stanislaus State, though she’s certainly the most controversial.

For fundraisers, this is the tricky balancing act. It can cost an arm and a leg to hire a big name. It’s the big name, though, that can sell tickets, build buzz and ultimately aid the cause.

Consider: In 2003, tax records show, the California State University Stanislaus Foundation paid $75,000 for an evening with legendary pianist Van Cliburn. Cliburn’s sold-out performance opened the university’s new music hall that March.

The previous year, tax records show the foundation paid $90,000 to the Washington Speakers Bureau for what was described as “professional speakers.” This apparently refers primarily to retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who spoke on Nov. 20, 2002.

Now, the foundation is paying Palin an unpublicized sum to appear at the university’s 50th anniversary gala June 25.

Palin’s standard speaking fee is $100,000, according to a lawsuit filed in Tennessee last month. The possibility of paying such a large fee, combined with Palin’s political reputation, angers some.

“Her ideological stand does not jibe with aspirations related to an institution of higher learning,” said John Gunderson, a graduate of the university and now a member of the Stanislaus Union Elementary School District board in Modesto.

Another Palin critic, Stanislaus State graduate Michael Leaveck, added that he questions whether publicly paid university staff are contributing their time and labors to an appearance by a “divisive and polarizing figure.” At the same time, Leaveck said that “nothing at all” is inherently wrong with paying speakers a steep fee if the university profits.

A university spokeswoman declined Wednesday to speak about the Palin appearance and associated speaking fees, instead citing a March 25 prepared statement.

Open government advocacy groups and a Democratic state senator continue to press the foundation to disclose Palin’s fee. The foundation is a nonprofit that is not subject to state laws that would compel a public school to release the contract.

Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco on Wednesday charged that the university should disclose the fee because the nonprofit is an arm of the school. He argued that the foundation’s top officers all work for the university, that the foundation uses public resources and communicates with the public through the university’s Web site.

Foundation President Matt Swanson responded to Yee’s requests by writing: “I can assure you that no public funds are being used to support this event. All funds used have been given for the express purpose of putting on this event in order to raise money to benefit University programs and student services.”

Officials with the Washington Speakers Bureau, which represents Palin, did not return a telephone call Wednesday.

Palin, 46, who served a partial term as Alaska governor and ran unsuccessfully for vice president, is certainly at a different career stage than either Cliburn or Schwarzkopf. The pianist and the soldier were both 68 at the time of their San Joaquin Valley appearances. Both were taking victory laps rather than building their future careers.

Their appearances seemed to pay off for the hosts, financially and psychologically. Indeed, morale-boosting and buzz-building can become significant nonmonetary benefits for high-profile appearances.

First lady Michelle Obama’s appearance at the University of California at Merced’s graduation last May, for instance, cost an estimated $1 million for security and other services. On the up side, Obama’s presence drew national attention to the new university.

Former President Jimmy Carter is not being paid for his May 3 appearance at UC Merced. The university is only covering Carter’s expenses, a university spokeswoman said.

Tickets for Cliburn’s 2003 performance at the 312-seat Bernell and Flora Snider Music Recital Hall sold out at $250 a head.

For $400, some ticket-holders also secured a dinner and a photo opportunity. Some considered the ancillary benefits priceless.

“It’s an outstanding performance for our community,” Modesto resident Charlie Bird said at the time.

Schwarzkopf drew 800 people to the Modesto Centre Plaza, as the keynote speaker of the university’s Leadership Forum.

News accounts at the time reported that Schwarzkopf, like Palin a client of the Washington Speakers Bureau, was to be paid $60,000. Publicly available tax records don’t elaborate on why the foundation reported paying the speakers bureau $90,000 during the year.

The $500-a-head Palin event will be held in the school’s 330-seat cafeteria. Selling 330 tickets at that price would yield $166,000, though the university also must cover services including the five-course dinner.

The foundation’s Web page at shows it’s seeking larger sums from donors. Someone can become a “platinum sponsor” by contributing $50,000 — a donation that comes with two tables for eight at the dinner, a VIP reception, a display of the sponsor’s company logo at the gala and an advertisement in a university magazine.

“Gold sponsors” would contribute $20,000 and “silver sponsors” must donate $10,000.

Bee assistant city editor Adam Ashton contributed to this report.