Leland Yee: The college crusader

State Sen. Leland Yee (D- San Francisco) has been one of the Legislature's most determined advocates of government accountability in recent years, a sometimes lonely undertaking in a Capitol dominated by public employee unions that want to hide their members' salaries and police unions that want to let officers hide their identities when they shoot people. But Yee is nothing if not persistent, and he intends Monday to introduce — for the third time — his bill to extend the reach of the California Public Records Act to include fundraising foundations that function as auxiliaries to state universities. The Legislature should pass it again, and the new governor should sign it.

Auxiliaries are arms of public universities established to assist university fundraising. The auxiliaries share offices and staff with their associated universities and sometimes even mingle funds with those institutions. But when the public asks about their practices, the groups claim they are private and thus not subject to the disclosure requirements of the Public Records Act. That's self-evidently abusive.

Indeed, the foundations have used their immunity from disclosure to perform plenty of mischief. An auxiliary affiliated with Sonoma State University lent more than $1 million to a former board member, who then declared bankruptcy. At San Francisco City College, a campus executive was indicted for allegedly using auxiliary money for personal expenses. At Fresno State, donors to the auxiliary foundation got luxury boxes at the new campus arena, but the group won't disclose details. At Sacramento State, the campus president used auxiliary money to remodel his kitchen. If the auxiliaries or foundations were genuinely private, that might not be of great public consequence: Anyone who wants to give money to refurbish a kitchen is free to do so. But when the money is raised by public employees working out of public offices and for public purposes — and with gifts of public property offered in return — it should go without saying that the public has a right to monitor that activity.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had raised concerns about Yee's first bill, which he feared would discourage donors who prefer to give anonymously. In response, Yee amended his legislation so that it specifically exempts from disclosure any anonymous donor unless that donor receives something worth $500 or more in return for the gift. That should have settled the matter, but after the bill passed both houses overwhelmingly, Schwarzenegger vetoed it again anyway.

Now Yee is back, and this time he has a new governor to convince. Gov.-elect Jerry Brown already has demonstrated more enthusiasm for this effort than his predecessor, having investigated the auxiliaries while he was attorney general and having found abuses. Now that he'll be governor, he has the chance to make Yee's bill the law.

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