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PSU gift failed 'gut check' for top open records officer

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Change coming?

Pending bills would toughen open-records standards at Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh and Temple and Lincoln universities:

Senate Bill 457

Prime sponsor: Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna County

Effect: Ends exemption for state-related universities in Right-to-Know Law. State-related universities oppose.

Senate Bill 444

Prime sponsor: Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County

Effect: Brings campus police departments under Right-to-Know Law. State-related universities endorse.

House Bill 311

Prime sponsor: Rep. Scott Conklin, R-Centre County

Effect: Similar to SB 457, ends much of exemption except for proprietary information. State-related universities oppose portions.

House Bill 61

Prime sponsor: Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County

Effect: Similar to SB 457 and HB 311, repeals exemptions. State-related universities oppose.

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Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Not long after Terry Mutchler became Pennsylvania's open records officer, a Penn State University representative suggested a gift that “didn't pass the gut check,” she says.

At an August 2008 meeting, someone from the school's alumni association offered her four free, 50-yard line tickets to a homecoming football game at Beaver Stadium, Mutchler said.

She does not recall the person's name.

“Under the most generous interpretation, it was a welcoming gesture. Under a more cynical interpretation, it was a beholden situation,” Mutchler said. “I think if I would have accepted those tickets, I would have felt beholden to Penn State. And that's something I was not willing to do.”

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said her university colleagues could not recall an offer to Mutchler.

Penn State obeys disclosure laws by reporting the football tickets it gives to lawmakers, Powers said. She said the school invites state officials with whom “we have ongoing professional relationships.”

The state Office of Open Records, a quasi-judicial agency for which Mutchler is executive director, adjudicates appeals when a public office refuses to share information sought under the Right-to-Know Law. The law largely exempts Penn State.

Her office has received — and, under the law, rejected — hundreds of requests seeking records from Penn State about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County, praised Mutchler for refusing the tickets, saying, “It absolutely does not pass the smell test.”

Mutchler said the university did not ask for favorable treatment, and she did not report the matter to the state Ethics Commission, noting Penn State did nothing illegal. Lawmakers are debating whether to bring Penn State and other state-related universities under stricter open-records rules.

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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