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Education Department ordered to release 644 pages of emails on abuse at Penn State

| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 11:18 p.m.
Ryan Bagwell, Penn State alum and candidate for the board of trustees.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania taxpayers are paying state lawyers for the Department of Education to keep secret some of its former secretary's emails about the Jerry Sandusky case, though how much money is unclear.

In a lawsuit pending before Commonwealth Court, the department is trying to block the release of three emails between former Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and Gov. Tom Corbett's Office of General Counsel about firms that Penn State University could have hired to investigate the university administration's handling of the child sex abuse case involving the former assistant football coach.

Ryan Bagwell, a 2002 Penn State graduate, is seeking documents that apparently suggested investigative firms the university could hire. The department claims attorney-client privilege between state lawyers and Tomalis, who was a member of the university board of trustees while Education secretary.

“This is a battle solely of the Corbett administration's own making,” said Bagwell, a web page developer living near Madison, Wis. “The state is spending a tremendous amount of money and resources on a desperate, ego-fueled mission to conceal three measly emails.

“Given the extent to which they're fighting to withhold such a small amount of information, one has to wonder how embarrassing those emails truly are.”

Tim Eller, a spokesman for acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, declined to comment. Tomalis could not be reached.

How much money the state is paying lawyers to handle the case is uncertain since the attorneys perform other work.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records informed Bagwell that it ordered the Education Department to release 644 pages of emails sent among Penn State board members, top aides to Corbett, the governor and Tomalis. The department has 30 days to appeal.

Eller declined to answer whether the state will do so. Penn State officials refused to comment.

Sandusky, 70, is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence for molesting 10 boys over 15 years, often on campus. The university in October said it would pay $59.7 million to resolve claims from 26 men who allege abuse by the retired coach.

Tomalis, who resigned this week as Corbett's higher education adviser, sent about 500 emails while a trustee that were made public to Bagwell. In a separate lawsuit, also before Commonwealth Court, Bagwell seeks more than 100 emails the department withheld while granting access to those.

Penn State lawyers are handling that case, and the university continues to spend money to fight the release of the remaining records.

State taxpayers pay about 6 percent of Penn State's $4.6 billion budget.

In the 15 months since he resigned as Education secretary to become Corbett's adviser, the Education Department maintains only five of Tomalis' emails are available.

During that period, taxpayers continued to pay Tomalis more than $139,000 a year — his salary as secretary — despite little documentation about his work as an adviser.

Tomalis resigned that position on Tuesday. Corbett has said he was not a “ghost employee.”

Bagwell, founder of the Penn State Sunshine Fund, said the department “spent a lot of energy fighting the release of many hundreds of pages of records.”

“If the state needs to hide what he was doing, with respect to the Penn State investigation, it raises all sorts of red flags,” said Marci Hamilton, a Bucks County-based legal scholar who represented two Sandusky victims.

The Attorney General's Office began investigating Sandusky when Corbett was attorney general. The Penn State board eventually hired an investigative firm headed by former FBI Director Louis Freeh to look at how university officials handled the Sandusky case.

Tomalis was one of the 32 trustees who dismissed head football coach Joe Paterno and then-President Graham Spanier on Nov. 9, 2011, four days after authorities arrested Sandusky for child sexual abuse.

The board-commissioned review by Freeh's firm criticized the school's football culture. Freeh concluded that Paterno, Spanier and two other administrators failed to protect children from Sandusky. Spanier, former Vice President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley are awaiting trial on charges of a cover-up.

The NCAA used the Freeh report to craft unprecedented sanctions against Penn State, including a $60 million fine, the erasure of football victories from 1998 to 2011, and a four-year suspension from football bowl games. NCAA officials since have relaxed some of the punishments.

Brad Bumsted and Adam Smeltz are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com and Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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