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July 9, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Support gathering to require more transparency at Penn State

By Jared Sichel | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Since former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest last November, state lawmakers have tried to make Penn State University open up many of its internal documents as a condition of receiving taxpayer support.

Sandusky was charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of minors and on June 22 a jury found him guilty of 45 of those counts. He is expected to be sentenced in either July or August and faces a minimum of 60 years behind bars.

Revelations that the university knew some information about Sandusky’s crimes, some of which were committed on campus, but did not report them to authorities have encouraged lawmakers to push the university to publicly disclose internal communication between some officials.

That attempt thus far has failed. With no new transparency requirements, Penn State will receive $228 million from Pennsylvania taxpayers between now and July 2013, not one dime less than it received last fiscal year.

But transparency measures may be lurking on the horizon. State lawmakers, including Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, will begin the fall session with their sights set on upping Penn State’s transparency requirements.

“This is the no-brainer of no-brainers,” DePasquale said. “We are finding more and more evidence as to why it’s necessary.”

DePasquale’s House Bill 2051 would have brought Penn State under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. But it never made it out of the State Government Committee when he introduced it late last year.

Chairman of the State Government Committee, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said that he did not recall DePasquale ever consulting him about pushing HB 2051 through committee. He added, though, that he also believes Penn State needs to have stricter compliance standards.

“We don’t have any idea how much has been spent over the years with the whole Sandusky issue,” Metcalfe said. “It’s very offensive and alarming that we don’t have more transparency and accountability.”

The Right-to-Know Law, also known as Act 3, requires all government agencies to make public most internal documents, including emails, upon request. But Penn State, as a “state-related” university, is under no legal obligation to release emails to the media or the public.

Pennsylvania’s four state-related schools — Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln — are taxpayer assisted but independently managed. Under Act 3, they must release the salaries of officers and directors along with IRS Form 990, which provides general information on an organization’s mission, programs and finances.

At any of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-run schools, however, all internal documents and emails are presumed to be open to the public unless the school successfully can argue otherwise.

Penn State’s lack of transparency was highlighted last week when CNN leaked some internal Penn State emails pointing to a possible cover-up between former President Graham Spanier and other ranking Penn State officials. Last December, Penn State rejected a request by CNN to obtain a 1998 campus police report on Sandusky regarding a complaint by a young boy’s mother.

In November, Sunshine Review and WikiFOIA, two pro-transparency nonprofit groups, released a report that listed Penn State among the least transparent state universities in the country. That report blamed the lack of transparency on the school’s exemption from the Right-to-Know Law.

Gov. Tom Corbett, responding to questions at a news conference last week, said that although he expects lawmakers to work with Penn State on transparency, he understands Penn State’s concern about making public what it considers valuable information. Corbett is a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees.

“I believe in transparency,” Corbett said. “At the same time I understand that there is concern among the state-related (schools), particularly the research institutions, as to protection of formulas and intellectual property secrets.”

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Sen. Dominic Pileggi, said the Chester Republican hopes to take up transparency legislation before November elections.

He acknowledged, though, that any change to Right-to-Know needs to maintain the distinction between state-run schools and taxpayer-assisted schools.

“There is obviously a difference between the state-owned universities and the state-related universities,” Arneson said. “Having different application of the Right-to-Know Law is a fundamental premise.”

Anthony Lubrano, an incoming Board of Trustee member, told PA Independent that making a more open and transparent university will be his main goal when his tenure begins on Thursday.

“Penn State has been painted as an insular institution with some level of cronyism,” Lubrano said. “We have to work really, really hard to change that perception.”

He added that accepting taxpayer support means that the university should expect some public scrutiny.

“We are going to be accountable for our behavior,” Lubrano said. “But I don’t know yet how we actually disclose without impeding the right of privacy.”

The commonwealth’s state-related universities will receive nearly $515 million in taxpayer funds this year.

An audit of the university’s 2010-11 financial statements, conducted by the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP, showed that Penn State got about 7.3 percent ($334 million) of its $4.5 billion operating revenue from state taxpayers. An audit of its 2011-12 financials will be available in the fall.

Four years ago, state-related universities successfully lobbied for an exemption from parts of the Right-to-Know Law, arguing that attracting donors would be more difficult if they thought their personal information could be made public.

Lisa Powers, director of Penn State’s Department of Public Information, said that the university does not want to be forced to divulge more information than it already does.

“We are revisiting this issue with legislators, and there are some concerns embedded in the right-to-know discussions — such as revealing donor information or competitive research information,” Powers said. “These are very real issues.”

She added that, unlike state-run schools, Penn State does not enjoy the legal protection of “sovereign immunity”, which bars most civil lawsuits against government employees and institutions.

Lawmakers DePasquale and Metcalfe both agree that only internal financial documents related to taxpayer money should be subject to the Right-to-Know Law.

“I’m not trying to alter the private donor side of this,” DePasquale said.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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