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Giving 'Em Fitz: Legislature enabled secrecy and unaccountability at Penn State

An old crime reporter once advised me that in the aftermath of a crime the guiltiest party is often the busiest party.

The cover-up of Jerry Sandusky's alleged acts would not have been possible without compliant lawmakers. (Andy Colwell, The Patriot-News/AP)
The cover-up of Jerry Sandusky's alleged acts would not have been possible without compliant lawmakers. (Andy Colwell, The Patriot-News/AP)Read more

An old crime reporter once advised me that in the aftermath of a crime the guiltiest party is often the busiest party.

Have you noticed how the Pennsylvania legislature has been scrambling lately?

In the wake of Penn State's child sexual-abuse scandal, Harrisburg is alive with reaction as legislators scurry to ride the wave of public outrage and erase their own fingerprints.

The same lawmakers who carved out a special exemption for the university when the state's open-record laws were liberalized in 2008 are now moving to repeal it.

The same legislative bodies that watered down child-abuse penalties and whistle-blower protections now want to toughen them.

The same men and women who granted Penn State most of its financial wishes over the years now want to ensure that no state money is used to settle the victims' lawsuits.

Maybe, as authorities have charged, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz did move to cover up Jerry Sandusky's alleged evil. Perhaps Joe Paterno, his football staff, and Penn State's administration all put on blinders.

But however all that plays out, this much is clear - the Pennsylvania legislature was a major enabler.

The cloud of secrecy that enveloped Penn State, the power and untouchability its football program accrued - none of that would have been possible without compliant lawmakers.

Why do you think 70 or 80 senators and representatives, as many as 500 each season, were admitted free to every Nittany Lions football game?

Football, as is the case at most big-time colleges, was the carrot used to lure the rich and the powerful to Penn State's aid.

Legislators devoted to the Nittany Lions were essential to the university's expansion.

Given the Nittany Lions' success and reputation, what legislator/fan was going to question the $300 million in taxpayer funds Penn State needed each year? How many would jeopardize their cozy relationship with the famous program by denying administration requests?

Take, for example, these two incidents.

One of the conditions of Penn State's joining the Big Ten in 1991 was that it build a bigger basketball arena. The economy was in a recession and the $55 million price tag was going to be a problem. So Penn State went to the legislature.

And the legislature ponied up $33.8 million.

The Bryce Jordan Center opened in 1996 and the facility was busy several nights a week, not only with college-related activities but with circuses, concerts, and ice shows.

When the State College School District levied a 5 percent amusement tax on tickets to events there, the university balked. Claiming those events were educational, not entertainment, Penn State contacted its friends in the legislature.

Within weeks, a bill was crafted and passed prohibiting any state school districts from levying amusement taxes.

"The university has a very powerful lobby in Harrisburg," said J. Ross McGinnis, the attorney who represented the school district. "And when this case came about, they used all of their influence."

In 2008, the legislature moved to improve Pennsylvania's open-record laws, widely regarded as among the most restrictive in the nation.

Penn State was to be required only to reveal its yearly financial statements and the salaries of top administrators.

President Graham Spanier cried foul and testified in Harrisburg that if the veil were lifted, big donors would be driven away; the intellectual-property rights of professors and researchers would be violated; and, God forbid, Paterno's salary might even be revealed. (It's reportedly a bit more than $1 million.)

So the legislature carved out a special exemption for Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln, rationalizing that these were not state institutions but state-related institutions.

The distinction, it seemed, was that the only thing the state's taxpayers were entitled to know about state-related universities was that hundreds of millions of their dollars supported them.

Now, it's difficult to imagine Penn State getting anything out the legislature.

Soon, thanks to the outraged but belated cries for change in Harrisburg and the revelations likely in lawsuits to come, we are going to know much more about Penn State and its secrets.

No doubt much more than we ever really wanted to know.

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More NHL tinkering

Advice to the NHL:


The league this week announced plans for yet another realignment. By my reckoning, the NHL has now endured more geographical shifts than the Balkans.

Is it any wonder hockey now has fewer fans than Rick Santorum? You think it's hard following the puck? Try keeping track of the conferences and divisions.

The East and the West, the Patrick and the Wales, the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Yin and the Yang, the game of musical chairs never stops.

Don't bet on it

Those worried about predictions that big money or big egos or big business will kill sports, take comfort in this example of that world's lack of foresight.

In 1950, Connie Mack was not alone in predicting that television would kill baseball attendance. His A's televised only a handful of games and drew 309,805 fans that year.

Last season, every Phillies game was televised.

They drew 3,680,718 fans.