Exemption in disclosure law shields Penn State probe from public
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Scandals are many things, but they are not cheap.
As Penn State University hires big-name law firms and image consultants, girds for costly lawsuits and settles up with campus leaders who resigned or were fired, the public is left to wonder:
What will a decade's silence in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case ultimately cost Pennsylvania's largest public university, and by extension, its students and the taxpayers?
The question may never be answered because Penn State doesn't have to tell.
An exemption to the state's Right to Know Law that experts say is rare among comparable U.S. public universities already is being used by Penn State to deny access to records that would shed light on spending decisions the school is making amid the deepening crisis.
Among the documents that Penn State has told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette it will not release are:
• Separation agreements and other records that would detail final payouts to both former President Graham Spanier, who resigned five days after the scandal became public, and legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired the same day.
• Invoices and other records that would show what Penn State is spending on legal representation, crisis communications and other services related to an internal investigation into the university's handling of the matter.
• A contract Penn State has with Ketchum, a public relations and marketing firm.
• A contract Penn State has with Pittsburgh-based law firm Reed Smith.
• A contract Penn State has with Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan, a Washington, D.C., law firm whose partners include former FBI director Louis Freeh, who was appointed to lead the internal investigation.
State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York County, says withholding those records is wrong, especially as Penn State scrambles to rebuild trust. He plans on Monday to introduce legislation with 31 co-sponsors to extend the Right-to-Know Law to Penn State and three other state-related universities -- the University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln -- that are largely exempt from it.
Those four schools get half a billion state tax dollars each year, with Penn State alone getting $228 million, he said.
"You have a significant amount of taxpayer dollars invested there," Mr. DePasquale said. "I wouldn't want to know Joe Paterno's Social Security number or his current health status, but when taxpayers are potentially on the hook, they have a right to know the terms of those agreements."
Granting those schools the exemption they lobbied for when the law was last revised in 2009 "was a mistake we need to fix," Mr. DePasquale said.
By way of comparison, the records deemed off limits by Penn State generally are available from any of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, the state's community colleges or Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, all covered by the Right to Know Law.
It entitles the public to examine institutional spending practices all the way down to presidential contracts, vendor agreements, employee compensation and spending receipts for such activities as travel, dining and entertainment.
In the case of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, one state-owned school, it meant the public last June had a right to know terms of a $335,000 separation agreement with the school's departing president that included a year's salary, unused leave, benefits and up to $15,000 for moving expenses.
Penn State "recognizes the current public interest in the requested information," university assistant general counsel Amy Elizabeth McCall wrote last Wednesday in denying the Post-Gazette's request for records, bills and contracts under the Right to Know Law.
However, she alluded to the fact that Penn State, like the other state-related schools, is obliged under the law to provide only data found on a federal IRS 990 form and a list of the school's 25 highest salaried employees.
In 2007, Mr. Spanier lobbied against bringing Penn State fully under the disclosure law. He told a state Senate committee that such disclosure could, among other woes, compromise donor confidentiality and weaken the school's ability to "compete in a global marketplace for the best faculty and research scientists who we ask to come to Penn State to teach and do critical research that supports the state's economy and quality of life."
But others, including Mr. DePasquale, say the University of California at Berkeley and other top-flight public universities apparently are not compromised by disclosure laws in their states. They say scandal aside, disclosure promotes prudent spending habits.
Earlier this year, a U.S. Department of Education survey found Penn State to have the most expensive tuition of any public four-year college in the nation, followed by Pitt. Those schools have said there is a correlation between those prices and Pennsylvania's near bottom ranking among states in support for public higher education.
But with no way to independently examine how those schools spend their money, it's impossible to know if other factors are helping to drive up prices.
"Without that kind of information, you really can't make judgements," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
At a news conference last week, officials could not estimate what it will cost Penn State for a team of former federal prosecutors and FBI agents to conduct an internal investigation dating back to 1975. It will examine campus policies and procedures and review whether Penn State officials or its board of trustees knew of allegations that Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in shower in 2002 and if they responded appropriately.
In all, a state grand jury has charged Mr. Sandusky with abusing at least eight boys between 1995 and 2009.
First Published November 30, 2011 12:00 am