Stricter Right-to-Know Law may have helped in PSU case, advocates for transparency argue
By Adam Smeltz
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 1:41 a.m.
Even aggressive defenders of open governance agree: Better transparency at Penn State University probably would not have kept longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky from abusing young boys.
But mandating broad public access to Penn State records might have helped snare the pedophile sooner and forced school officials to address fallout more candidly, allowing more opportunities for accountability and public input, open records advocates say.
“To avoid future scandals and difficulties, transparency will always help,” said Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat who supports pending state bills that would expand open records access at Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Temple and Lincoln universities. “The public is insisting on transparency. That's a good thing, and the universities need to accommodate what the public — which is providing the money — is insisting on.”
No one at Penn State was available to discuss questions, spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.
Dinniman and Rep. Scott Conklin, a Centre County Democrat whose district includes the Penn State University Park campus, said the Sandusky scandal directed bipartisan attention to transparency at the four state-related schools. Together, they receive more than $500 million a year in state money but remain mostly exempt from the Right-to-Know Law under a 2008 amendment.
Penn State vowed not to use taxpayer money for 26 victim settlements, related legal fees and other expenses from the scandal, which have topped $110 million. A Centre County jury found Sandusky guilty in June 2012 of abusing 10 boys over 15 years, often on Penn State grounds.
Three former university administrators await trial on charges they helped conceal concerns about Sandusky for years. Prosecutors have cited as evidence various university records, including email messages sent among the administrators.
“You could have the strongest right-to-know law in the U.S., and I don't think it would have stopped Jerry Sandusky,” said Terry Mutchler, executive director at the state Office of Open Records. “However, I do think that, had the university been subject to the Right-to-Know Law, the citizens of the commonwealth might have been tipped off earlier. That may have, in some way, then prevented some of that illegal activity.”
For example, Mutchler said legal bills Penn State received as administrators weighed how to approach Sandusky could have shed light on the ordeal. It would have been up to reporters or other citizens to request those records.
Conklin said better disclosure standards could have invited more open decision-making. He pointed to trustees' closed-door decision in November 2011 to remove then-football Coach Joe Paterno and then-President Graham Spanier, along with the school's acceptance of unprecedented sanctions from the NCAA in July 2012.
The law requires state-related universities to disclose only select details, such as salaries for their 25 highest-paid workers. They keep confidential many employees' salaries, contracts, expenses and other records that state-owned agencies such as the State System of Higher Education must present on request.
The inconsistency makes sense because state-related schools are not state agencies and they account for tax money they receive, school attorneys argued at an October hearing in Harrisburg. Their state appropriations allow for a state audit, they said.
Disclosure could affect employee morale, the confidentiality of research and leverage in negotiating contracts, the lawyers said. In Pitt's case, state money makes up less than 8 percent of the budget.
“Trying to fit the state-related universities into the category of state agencies is not only contrary to the carefully designed legislative status of these institutions, but also is unnecessary,” Pitt spokesman Ken Service said.
The schools have some sympathy in the Legislature. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, believes they should be covered more fully under the Right-to-Know Law but not to the extent of state agencies, his spokesman Erik Arneson said.
“Certainly, every tax dollar used to fund them should be fully transparent,” though much of the schools' support comes from tuition, endowments, foundations and other sources, he said.
Mutchler and Dinniman said universities across the country comply with more stringent rules, with exemptions for sensitive information.
Dinniman expects Pennsylvania lawmakers to vote on strengthened open-government proposals by summer. They are reviewing feedback from the universities.
“In other states, this is not a controversy at all,” Dinniman said.
Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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