Time to end the exemption, The Daily Review


The explosive Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2011 exposed not only the ex-coach’s crimes, but many inadequacies in state law regarding the protection of children and the accountability of institutions.

One key reform proposal that emerged was ending the exemption from the state Right-to-Know Law for Penn State University, Mr. Sandusky’s former employer, and three other state-affiliated universities. The proposal has broad bipartisan support but has yet to pass.

Among its principal advocates is Gov. Tom Corbett, who was attorney general when the Sandusky investigation began and governor and a member of the Penn State board of trustees when Mr. Sandusky was arrested.

“I would support it if the legislature were to pass a law or amendment to the Right-To-Know that (PSU) would have to follow that,” the governor declared in February 2012.

Greater transparency is indeed a key component to better governance at Penn State. But now the governor advocates opacity on matters involving the PSU board on the part of an agency that already is covered by the Right-to-Know Law, his own state Department of Education.

For the third time, the Department of Education has filed a lawsuit to prevent the disclosure of emails within the administration, and between former Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis – also a former member of the Penn State board of trustees – and other members of that board.

How and why the PSU board responded to the Sandusky crisis, including the decisions to fire football coach Joe Paterno and contract for an investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, are matters of substantial public interest. Because PSU is exempt from the Right-to-Know Law, transparency advocates turned to the emails of Mr. Tomalis, a public official clearly covered by the disclosure law.

Ryan Bagwell, a PSU alumnus who is now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, prevailed in a hearing before the Office of Open Records, which ordered the Department of Education to release 644 pages of relevant emails. The DOE obfuscated, saying it wouldn’t comply until Mr. Bagwell agreed to pay more than $300 in copying costs, even though the law precludes making document releases contingent upon copying costs.

Then, the DOE appealed the records office decision to the Commonwealth Court. The two lawyers who filed the appeal collectively are paid about $230,000 a year by the taxpayers. So the department is using public funds to try to prevent the disclosure of public information.

Mr. Corbett should instruct the DOE to drop the lawsuit and release the data, which would then comply with his own call for greater transparency regarding PSU.