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Open records reforms, pension fixes could lose steam as Sandusky fades

By   /   October 10, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Old Main on Penn State’s campus in State College, PA. The school might be in a stronger position to push-back against opening its books if lawmakers wait until 2013 to pass legislation.

HARRISBURG  – Leaving a rewrite of the state’s open records law on the back burner until 2013 could be bad news for anyone who hopes to see reforms in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

Daniel Filler, a professor of law at Drexel University, told PA Independent on Wednesday that Penn State and the three other state-related universities targeted by lawmakers for more transparency could be in a stronger position to push back against those changes as time passes.

“As new things surface, they tend to take center stage,” he said. “That’s the nature of politics.”

Legislative leaders maintain that they will keep a focus on rewriting the open records law even as the Sandusky scandal fades into the review mirror, and open records advocates say the important thing is making any changes correctly, rather than rushing into them.

The four schools in question — Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities — enjoy a special exemption in the state’s right-to-know law that keeps them from having to disclose how they spend their money and other internal matters.

The four schools received more than $500 million in the state budget, with Penn State getting $227 million of that total.

Immediately after the Sandusky scandal broke last November, there were calls from lawmakers to provide future taxpayer dollars to Penn State only if the school submitted to the right-to-know law.  Now, nearly a year later, it looks like it might be well into 2013 before any changes are made.

When it comes to legislative fixes, lawmakers are interested in what will score them the most political points, Filler said.

That’s why politicians propose a flurry of reforms in the immediate aftermath of a scandal.  Whether anything actually happens depends on the political calculus, too.

“The question is whether they can get some political mileage out of it,” Filler said.

Debbie Mussellman, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the organization supports revising the state-related university’s standing under the state open records law, particularly when it comes to transparency for state dollars given to the schools.

But she said the issue will not go away even if lawmakers decide to wait for 2013 to act.

“I don’t see the interest in something like this fading,” she said. “But we’d always rather see issues we’re concerned about addressed sooner rather than later.”

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said Tuesday that lawmakers had a series of hearings during the summer and will continue to work on updating the right-to-know law, but it is unlikely to cross the finish line in 2012 because of a number of other bills jockeying for position in the final week of the session.

Lisa Powers, spokeswoman for Penn State, said earlier this week that the school is cooperating with lawmakers who seek to expand the university’s participation in the right-to-know law.

The State Employees Retirement System, meanwhile, is reviewing Sandusky’s conviction to see if it will trigger a law that allows the state to forfeit pension payments to some convicts.

Under state law, a member of SERS forfeits his or her pension if convicted of a crime in connection to the member’s employment, said Pamela Hile, spokeswoman for the pension system.

“In every case, SERS must have legal standing to withhold or stop payments,” she said.

Previously, SERS chairman Nicholas Maiale told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that he was “not optimistic” anything could be done to prevent Sandusky from collecting his annual pension funds.

It’s unclear if lawmakers could change the pension forfeiture law to retroactively strip Sandusky of benefits accrued while working at Penn State.  However, they could at least make the changes so any similar crimes in the future would automatically trigger the forfeiture law.

And that’s exactly what should be done, said Jennifer Storm, executive director of the Dauphin County Victim/Witness Assistance Program.

She said Sandusky should not be allowed to benefit in “any way, shape or form” from his crimes — including continuing to collect an annual pension of about $59,000.

“I don’t understand how that hasn’t been addressed,” she told PA Independent on Wednesday.  “I think we have one of the biggest teachable moments before us.”

Sandusky also collected a $148,000 lump sum payment when he retired in 1999 — and the internal review of the scandal conducted by the university this summer found evidence that school officials maneuvered his retirement to coincide with a brief window allowing the former assistant football coach to collect a larger pension payout.

Legislation has been proposed that would add sexual crimes, violent crimes or even all felony offenses to the pension forfeiture law.

But, like the ppen records reforms, they will likely be left for 2013.

Contact Boehm at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.