Pa. law backs up Penn State's fight for secrecy

December 1, 2011 - 5:17 PM
Penn State Abuse

FILE - This Nov. 5, 2011 file photo provided by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General shows former Penn State football defensive coordinator Gerald

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Penn State won't release information that could shed light on the child sex-abuse case involving a former assistant football coach because the state open records law gives the school special status. That may soon change, as lawmakers question those protections while the university denies requests for records showing what key figures knew about the allegations before Jerry Sandusky was charged last month with molesting children.

The school has long had a reputation for guarding its secrets closely and zealously, and when the state attorney general announced the charges against Sandusky, she said their investigation — by a grand jury with subpoena power — had been hampered by an uncooperative atmosphere among unnamed school officials.

Penn State has cited its exemption from the law in the past month in denying requests by The Associated Press for documents related to a 1998 investigation into Sandusky that began when a woman complained he had showered with her son; a copy of his severance agreement; and emails among top administrators about Sandusky.

All it provided was a "police services activity report" that said an officer in June 1998 "requested an incident number for an ongoing investigation." The school cited its Right-to-Know Law exemption in declining to release more, but added that even if the law did apply fully to the school, other provisions would prevent disclosure of the records.

Sandusky is accused of abusing eight boys, some on campus, over 15 years, allegations that were not immediately brought to the attention of authorities even though high-level people at Penn State apparently knew about them.

The scandal has resulted in the ousting of school President Graham Spanier and longtime coach Joe Paterno, and has brought shame to one of college football's legendary programs. Athletic Director Tim Curley has been placed on administrative leave, and Vice President Gary Schultz, who was in charge of the university's police department, has stepped down.

Schultz and Curley are charged with lying to the grand jury and failure to report suspected abuse, and Sandusky, 67, is charged with child sex abuse. All maintain their innocence and await preliminary hearings later this month.

Penn State and the other three "state-related universities" — Pitt, Lincoln and Temple — together are collecting $560 million in state government subsidies this year. Unlike similar institutions in most other states, they function independently and do not have to produce the records required of state government agencies.

"You would think at least now they should understand why they should be bending over backwards in being more forthcoming in releasing information," said state Rep. Eugene DePasquale. The York County Democrat has signed up 31 co-sponsors for a bill he will introduce Monday to put the four schools completely under the Right-to-Know Law.

Other lawmakers "think this is a no-brainer," DePasquale said. "It should have been done years ago."

The state Senate majority leader, Dominic Pileggi, of Delaware County, who sponsored the 2009 rewrite of the law, wants to extend the law to Penn State's university police force and has asked the State Government Committee to hold a hearing on a broader application of the law.

At a news conference on a different topic Wednesday, state Auditor General Jack Wagner said the real value of the state's support of the state-related schools extends beyond their annual cash subsidy to the cost over time to fund for building projects and participation in the state-sponsored retirement system.

"I think some changes need to be made by the General Assembly," Wagner said. "In particular, going forward, as it relates to transparency."

Before 2009, the weaker version of the Right-to-Know Law did not apply at all to state-related institutions. When The Patriot-News of Harrisburg wanted to learn Paterno's salary, it sought the information from the state retirement system.

The battle went to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in the paper's favor.

Penn State fought against being included at all in Pileggi's bill, and the Paterno case was still on the mind of Spanier when he testified about the bill before a committee in June 2007.

Spanier warned of a blow to morale once workers found out what others were making, a loss of leverage in bidding, harm to intellectual property, new reluctance for donors to come forward and "a further erosion in privacy rights."

"This bill does far more than feed the prurient interests of newspaper editors who are looking for a headline about how much Coach Paterno makes," Spanier said at the time.

Some of Penn State's competitors have to disclose much more information and manage to thrive, said Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

"They are able to compete with Penn State and other universities for top faculty, administration and grants — and successfully compete," she said.

The law requires the four schools only to submit a report by the end of every May that includes a tax filing, salaries of all officers and directors and a list of the 25 largest salaries. The law stated specifically they did not have to disclose information about individual donors.

Penn State's exemption from most provisions of the law means much of what it releases is information it wants to get out, said Anne Danahy, who covers the school for the Centre Daily Times in State College. It also gets released on Penn State's timetable, not the specific schedule laid out in the Right-to-Know Law.

"What they think should be public information and what a reporter thinks oftentimes are not the same thing," she said.

This week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that Penn State had denied its requests for its contract with a public relations and marketing firm, its contract with a law firm, and records related to the departures of Paterno and Spanier from their posts.

Temple University spokesman Ray Betzner said that in the wake of the Penn State scandal, Temple was willing to consider possible revisions to the exemptions.

"We understand the concerns that are being raised, and we look forward to seeing the legislation that legislators are bringing forward, and working with them to address their concerns," Betzner said.

Lincoln University lobbyists have started discussing exemptions with state legislators, said spokeswoman Cherie Amoore, and the school wants to know what information would have to be disclosed if the law changes.

"There's no formal decision on whether school will support or oppose changes," Amoore said, adding there are concerns that releasing donor details or other information might make the university less competitive.

A Pitt spokesman declined to comment.

Alaska and Delaware are the only other states that have comparable disclosure laws for large universities, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

"The downside is, you've got incredibly powerful institutions, spending tens of millions in government money, with very little opportunity for the taxpayers to exercise oversight," LoMonte said. "The situation is going to be a real eye-opener for the Legislature, and you're going to have a gut check as to whether your law still makes sense."

One of the first student questions for Penn State administrators during a public forum on the scandal Wednesday night in State College was whether their new commitment to transparency meant the school should be fully covered by the Right-to-Know Law.

President Rodney Erickson, named to the top job after Spanier left in the wake of the arrests, said the school already posts considerable budget detail online. He said it should be presented in more understandable form.

"Right to know doesn't mean right to know everything," Erickson said, "because there still will be things that people won't get to know," including health and student records.

"Overall, this context is changing," he told the students. "We have to see what kinds of discussions take place in Harrisburg. We will obviously comply with whatever decisions are made and hope that there is a reasonable kind of protection of sensitive sorts of information from those that the public really should (know)."

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Associated Press writers Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh, Marc Levy in Harrisburg and Genaro C. Armas in State College contributed to this report.