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Governor sues NCAA over sanctions on Penn State

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 12:12 p.m.
Gov. Tom Corbett speaks at a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 in State College. The NCAA overstepped its authority by imposing hefty sanctions on Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, Corbett said in announcing a federal lawsuit against the college athletics governing body. AP photo | Ralph Wilson
Gov. Tom Corbett announces plans to file a federal anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA over sanctions imposed against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal in State College, Pa. on Wednesday, January 02, 2013. Flanked by local business and political figures Corbett stated the suit contends the NCAA sanctions were over-reaching and unlawful. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

STATE COLLEGE — Gov. Tom Corbett filed suit to block what he called “overreaching and awful” penalties against Penn State University on Wednesday, six months after he and the school accepted the punishment from the NCAA over its handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Penn State boosters voiced support for the move even as they and critics questioned his legal standing in the lawsuit and the timing of the action.

“We remain troubled why Gov. Corbett, a Penn State trustee himself, failed to ask questions and critically review the implications of the sanctions when they were originally presented,” said Maribeth Roman Schmidt, a spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, an alumni group that formed in response to the Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. “If he disapproved of the terms of the NCAA consent decree, or if he thought there was something illegal about them, why didn't he exercise his duty to act long before now?”

Corbett said he waited to act because he wanted to review his options carefully and did not want the filing to interfere with Penn State's football season.

“Politics aside, I welcome the governor's action,” said Trustee Anthony Lubrano, a Corbett critic.

In July, Corbett called the $60 million fine and other football penalties “part of the corrective process.” On Wednesday, he said economic damage to the state and the university because of fallout from the sanctions and lower attendance at football games gave him standing to file the federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA.

“They punished past, present and future students,” Corbett said.

NCAA Executive Vice President and General Counsel Donald M. Remy called the move a setback to efforts by the university, which accepted the punishment.

“Not only does this ... lawsuit appear to be without merit, it is an affront to all of the victims in this tragedy — lives that were destroyed by the criminal actions of Jerry Sandusky,” Remy said.

Corbett used his hand-picked attorney general to gain authority to sue two weeks before critic Kathleen Kane takes office as the state's top lawyer. A Democrat, Kane pledged during her campaign last fall to investigate Corbett's handling of the Sandusky case, which he started as attorney general.

“As attorney general (Corbett) waited years to take Jerry Sandusky off the streets and now as governor, and a Penn State trustee he's wasted months before standing up for this world-class university,” said state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington County. “State Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane should deal with this after she is sworn in” Jan. 15, replacing Linda Kelly, whom Corbett appointed when he became governor in 2010.

Kane declined to comment.

Corbett, a Republican, said the state hired the Philadelphia law firm of Cozen O'Connor to handle the federal antitrust suit. James D. Schultz, Corbett's general counsel, was previously “of counsel” for Cozen O'Connor. They declined to say how much the firm would be paid.

The firm has represented several state agencies. Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said Schultz's previous affiliation with the firm had no bearing on its selection.

John Burkoff, a law school professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said a Philadelphia firm handling a case like this stands to make “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

A jury in June convicted Sandusky, 68, a former assistant football coach, of molesting 10 boys over 15 years. He is serving 30 to 60 years in prison.

Questions about Corbett's handling of the case as attorney general hounded his standing in polls as governor. By September, 66 percent of the respondents to a Franklin & Marshall College poll gave him low or poor marks for his work on the case and 49 percent wanted the next attorney general to review it.

The NCAA imposed the sanctions based on a university-commissioned report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that found a “conspiracy of silence” among top university officials, including former President Graham Spanier.

Spanier and two other former top Penn State administrators await trial on charges connected to the case. The Freeh report also implicated the late head football coach Joe Paterno in concealing allegations against Sandusky.

“The fact that Gov. Corbett now realizes, as do many others, that there was an inexcusable rush to judgment is encouraging,” Paterno family spokeswoman Mara Vandlik wrote in an email.

Penn State spokesman David LaTorre said the university is not a party to the lawsuit and was not involved in its preparation or filing.

“The university is committed to full compliance with the consent decree, the athletics integrity agreement and, as appropriate, the implementation of the Freeh report recommendations,” LaTorre wrote in an email.

Although the NCAA has been sued under antitrust laws in the past, former NCAA Division I chief of staff lawyer Stephen Morgan said Corbett's lawsuit “seems a bit of a long shot.”

“I still find it puzzling when you have something that was the result of an agreement between the institution and the NCAA, how you make the NCAA liable for that,” he said.

Harley countered: “We believe the governor does have standing on behalf of the citizens of Pennsylvania.”

The NCAA is a trade association and subject to antitrust laws, he said.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter and Debra Erdley is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. Bumsted can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Erdley can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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