Penn State's step to openness decried

Critics say university would have released more under Right-to-Know Law about what scandal will cost the school.

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If financial prognosticators somewhere deep inside Penn State University have even a rough idea of what the child sex scandal ultimately will cost the school, campus leaders were mum about it Tuesday.

But just hours after launching a new website intended to demonstrate openness, the state's flagship public university turned over an even more detailed breakdown of how $3.2 million was consumed by the crisis in just its first eight weeks.

The school listed individual dollar amounts paid to each of the 18 firms and individuals providing legal services, crisis communication and other public relations consulting help in the days after the Nov. 5 arrest of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex charges.

The data released, which drew both praise and criticism Tuesday from state officials and alumni, represent a level of disclosure beyond what Penn State has previously offered.

But it fell far short, say observers, of what the school would have to release were it subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law, providing fresh ammunition for those who say taxpayers are not well served when a university receiving nearly $228 million in general state aid gets to decide what is and is not the public's business.

For instance, the consultant total released reflects what Penn State paid but not what it actually received in return, since vouchers and other spending documents that would detail services -- documents available under Right-to-Know -- were not attached to the totals.

Campus officials say confidentiality language is why a settlement agreement with former Penn State president Graham Spanier, who resigned, will remain a secret. They say such language ultimately may keep secret a settlement agreement with late football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired, once that document is complete.

Under Right-to-Know, such agreements generally "would be available to citizens despite any confidentiality language, even if both parties agree," said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state Office of Open Records.

She said what Penn State provided "is a sliver of what would be available" through Right-to-Know. Just the same, she said, the fact Penn State released anything is good since it was not required to.

"I think you have to give credit where credit is due," she said.

Ms. Mutchler said based on what she's hearing from legislators, her sense is the data released on the new website, http://openness.psu.edu, won't likely slow momentum for placing Penn State and three other state-related schools -- the University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities -- under Right-to-Know.

State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York County, lead sponsor of one bill to do that, agreed. "I don't think it changes the momentum. Even the governor said a couple weeks ago if those schools want their [state aid] they have to change their thinking on Right-to-Know," Mr. DePasquale said.

Mr. Sandusky faces charges that he sexually assaulted 10 boys over 15 years, including a 2002 allegation involving a child in a campus shower that Penn State officials never reported to law enforcement.

With potential for lawsuits that could drag on for years, public interest may grow in the size of several pools of revenue that Penn State says it has on hand for costs not covered by insurance. The school did not respond Tuesday to inquiries about those funds, which are rooted in interest income from loans made by Penn State to unidentified parties, from monies the athletic department paid the university related to the Beaver Stadium expansion and other unspecified sources.

"Should they? Yes," Mr. DePasquale replied when asked if Penn State ought to detail those accounts and their origins.

A group of Penn State alumni and others who fault school trustees for their handling of the crisis had a more critical assessment of the data release. Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, also known as PS4RS, said in a statement that the data and new website are "a disappointing and superficial attempt at transparency" and suggest things have not changed.

"If the university learned anything over the last four months, it should have been that transparency should not -- and cannot -- exist only when it's convenient," the statement read. "There is no open dialogue present on this new website; no real-time engagement. Only a sterile, one-way email address, which smacks of backroom secrecy, review and control."

The legal fees detailed by Penn State include $210,309 in legal defense for Mr. Spanier, who is not charged with any crime, and for both Tim Curley, who is on administrative leave as Penn State's athletic director, and Gary Schultz, retired as senior vice president of business and finance, both of whom are charged with one count each of perjury and failure to report.


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. First Published February 15, 2012 5:00 AM


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