Penn State emails provide insight into key Sandusky decisions
March 9, 2016 12:16 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Penn State accepted $60 million in fines and other penalties in the NCAA consent decree -- so quick that Penn State did not fully consult its own board.
Ron Tomalis was a Corbett administration appointee to Penn State University’s board of trustees.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a Corbett administration appointee to Penn State University’s board of trustees, then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis was criticized by some for his role in an administration they contend was eager to see Penn State punished over the Sandusky scandal.
Yet it appears from emails turned over Tuesday to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that even Mr. Tomalis was uncomfortable in July 2012 with how quickly Penn State accepted $60 million in fines and other penalties in the NCAA consent decree -- so quick that Penn State did not fully consult its own board.
“The university already signed the consent decree? (W)ithout a board vote ...” Mr. Tomalis wrote Jennifer Branstetter, Mr. Corbett’s director of policy and planning. “That’ll make for interesting conversations.”
Ms. Branstetter replied that apparently Penn State officials felt the decision should fall under the discretion of then-President Rodney Erickson. Mr. Tomalis seemed uncomfortable with that.
“I’m sure, but the university just agreed to a $60 million fine/payout with no input from the board . . . Hopefully, the executive committee signed off on this action, cuz I’m not sure I’d agree with giving any president that much authority.”
Fallout dragged on for months over the controversial sanctions, which only a small portion of the board -- the executive committee -- was asked to approve before the deal was signed.
The decree became the subject of litigation between the NCAA and state officials ending in a settlement last year that, among other things, kept the $60 million in fines in the state and restored 112 wins to the football program, 111 of which would make Joe Paterno, once again, the winningest coach in college football history.
The board never did vote up or down that year on the decree, though it scheduled a teleconference call on Aug. 12, 2012, at which it was expected to do so. But amid concerns that not enough notice of the meeting had been given, many of the nearly three-dozen members instead simply offered verbal support for Mr. Erickson’s decision.
Among them was Mr. Corbett, who later reversed course and joined others in pushing for the sanctions to be tossed out.
Mr. Erickson and others who supported his decision said they felt they had no choice if they wanted to avoid what is known as “the death penalty,” a ban by the NCAA on the sport for at least a year.
Mr. Erickson has testified in a deposition that he spoke by phone with Mr. Corbett the day before the sanctions were announced to inform him of the impending deal. Apparently, that word did not reach the governor’s education secretary.
The correspondences between Mr. Tomalis and Ms. Branstetter, a curious footnote to a major event in the Sandusky scandal, are contained in some 600 pages of emails and other documentation turned over to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by lawyers for Penn State and the state Department of Education. They were provided under a stipulated agreement settling a Right-to-Know request filed by newspaper on Sept. 16, 2014.
The paper’s request for correspondence between Mr. Tomalis, board members and Corbett aides during 2011 and 2012 largely mirrored an earlier request by Ryan Bagwell, a Penn State alumnus. In Mr. Bagwell’s subsequent legal case, Commonwealth Court found that several of the exemptions claimed by the Department of Education in withholding the records were without merit.
Mr. Bagwell has yet to settle and is seeking additional documents. His Penn State Sunshine Fund has raised more than $50,000 toward his search for records.
He said Tuesday that he’s no more surprised that Mr. Tomalis was out of the loop on the consent decree than other board members who were kept in the dark, but he said it’s yet another example of a board not transparent with its own members.
“Its ridiculous,” he said Tuesday evening. ”There’s no flow of information on this board.”
Jerry Sandusky, a retired assistant football coach at Penn State, is serving a lengthy prison term for sexually assaulting young boys over a period of years, including some on campus. The scandal erupted with his arrest in November 2011 and led to the departure of top university administrators.
The emails released to the Post-Gazette, like some past disclosures, depict a board and university scrambling amid the scandal, monitoring media coverage and debating such matters as whether to revisit its reason for firing Mr. Paterno. The emails also reflect a board whose members sometimes were unaware of key decisions.
For instance, reacting to word Penn State had named Mr. Erickson as president outright without a national search, Mr. Tomalis emailed Ms. Branstetter on Nov. 17, 2011 — ”Did I miss something?”
Mr. Branstetter in reply asked, “When on earth was this decided?” and said the governor planned to call then board vice chairman John Surma. “Governor is calling Surma in the a.m. He’s concerned.”
Blil Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter; @BschacknerPG.
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