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Cracks have begun to form in the legacy of coach Joe Paterno

| Sunday, July 8, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
(Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review)
The Joe Paterno Statue located outside of Beaver Stadium after Paterno's weekly press conference was canceled on Nov. 08, 2011. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Illustration by Bob Newell

A bronze Joe Paterno still greets visitors to Beaver Stadium, but cracks may be forming at the base of the iconic Penn State football coach's Hall of Fame legacy.

Two weeks after a Centre County jury convicted a top former assistant of child sexual abuse, Penn State officials are bracing for the next fact-finding wave in the 8-month-old crisis.

News leaks from unidentified sources imply Paterno did little if anything to halt the abuse in 2001 by former assistant Jerry Sandusky, who faces a potential life sentence as a result of his conviction on 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 children.

Paterno, 85, cannot defend himself because he died in January of lung cancer.

His outraged family has demanded the public disclosure of all emails and records related to Paterno's role in the case. Former FBI director Louis Freeh, hired by university trustees to investigate the scandal, is expected to release a report as early as this week after conducting more than 400 interviews.

Email excerpts recast Paterno as a potential abuse enabler — a dramatic fall from grace for a man twice nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The hit to his legacy may become more severe than the damage done to Penn State's reputation, a communications expert said.

“It's most damaging to Joe Paterno and his family,” said Gene Grabowski of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington.

Under the best conditions, “It'd be extremely difficult, even if Joe Paterno were alive, to change the legacy, to restore the legacy,” Grabowski said. “With his passing, it's extraordinarily difficult. And the nature of the alleged crimes is such that it would probably add to the difficulty.”

Sandusky, 68, is awaiting sentencing after a widely-publicized trial. Sandusky served as Paterno's defensive coordinator for 22 years, retiring in 1999.

Paterno told a grand jury that a graduate assistant reported seeing Sandusky in a campus shower with a boy. Paterno told the jury that he passed along the 2001 report to Tim Curley, then Penn State's athletic director.

But email correspondence cited by CNN suggests Paterno and Curley's communication about the matter may have gone further. One exchange shows Curley backed off a tentative plan to approach outside authorities after he consulted Paterno, according to the CNN report.

Sandusky continued abusing boys for several years, court testimony shows.

A Paterno family attorney, Wick Sollers, said the leaked correspondence presents a partial picture.

In fact, the leaks illustrate “someone in a position of authority is not interested in a fair or thorough investigation,” Sollers said in a prepared statement.

Paterno's relatives do not know where the leaks originated but “you can interpret it for yourself,” family spokesman Dan McGinn said on Friday.

“The Paternos have been clear: What they want is the full truth to come out,” McGinn said.

Sollers said the late coach “reported the 2001 incident promptly and fully (but) was never interviewed by the university” before the trustees dismissed him as head coach in November. That happened about four days after Sandusky's arrest.

“He was not afforded due process and his story was never fully told,” Sollers said. “And he was never allowed to see the files and records that are now in question.”

Sollers questioned “why this breach of confidentiality (the email leaks), which seeks to preempt the Freeh report and undermine the courts, is not being objected to or otherwise addressed by those in a position of authority.”

The Freeh findings and governance-reform recommendations for Penn State could materialize within days of a planned university board meeting in Lackawanna County. State Attorney General Linda Kelly's office continues its grand jury investigation of Penn State, one of several ongoing investigations by national and regional agencies.

University spokesman David La Torre referred questions to Freeh, whose company did not respond to an inquiry. La Torre would not discuss the leaks.

The attorney general by law cannot release grand jury information.

“We're not commenting on those emails at all,” said spokeswoman Lauren Bozart. “We're not commenting on the emails or what came out on CNN.”

Still, leaks can be a strategic tool in any case, according to crisis-communications experts. Grabowski said the practice has gained momentum in the past 10 to 15 years “as lawyers have become a little less scrupulous about tactics.”

Prosecutors might leak information “to send a message to the other side, force the other side to change a plea or (develop) some kind of advantage in litigation,” he said.

It's tough to identify probable leak sources in the Penn State ordeal, but “you have to ask the question: Who would benefit from that?” he said. “I'm not so sure I see a motive here.”

Grabowski said smearing Paterno and other former officials might signal an attempt to “change the story and put the focus on people who are dead or already out of power — and take the spotlight off the university.”

That strategy would be problematic for Penn State, though, because “it doesn't divert the spotlight from the school” entirely, he said.

“Most people are not going to remember, in a year or two, who was in authority at Penn State when this happened,” Grabowski said. “In the end, it's not a good thing for Penn State.”

Provided Penn State takes a sophisticated approach to media, the leaks likely are not coming from the institution, said attorney and communications executive Christopher Lehane. His firm, Fabiani and Lehane, is based in California.

“If I'm the university, I want to approach this in a way where I'm very transparent, very open, very head-held-high,” said Lehane, whose clients have included President Bill Clinton and Goldman Sachs. He speculated that “someone with a particular liability or exposure” in the case could be leaking information.

For university executives, leaks may be a secondary consideration as they await the criminal trials of former administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz. The two, charged with perjury and failure to report Sandusky, are set for pretrial scheduling conferences this week in Dauphin County.

The Freeh report won't escape criticism, either. Faculty Senate Chairman Larry Backer said the group “did not appear to aggressively consult with all the important stakeholders” at Penn State, including faculty and alumni.

“I'm hoping that their proposals for changes won't be theoretically interesting but practically impossible,” said Backer, a law professor. “It's very easy, in the face of a scandal, to come up with all kinds of plans for reform. But unless the plan of reform is implementable, it's not going to do any good — other than to make you sound good.”

Adam Smeltz and Debra Erdley are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com. Erdley can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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