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8:00 pm
Fri December 30, 2011

Penn State Scandal Pushes Call For Stronger Right-to-Know Law

A Pennsylvania lawmaker wants to expand the Open Records law to include the four state-related universities. The legislation is a response to the child sexual abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Some Penn State officials did not make information public or contact law enforcement about alleged molestation of boys by Sandusky.

The commonwealth's Open Records law took effect on January 1, 2009. It requires state agencies, municipal governments, and the 14 state-owned universities to issue disclosure statements. However, the four state-related universities — Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple, and Lincoln — are exempt.

"Let's face it," said State Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna County), the sponsor of a bill to strengthen the Open Records law, "if you have public dollars coming into your coffers, and it's hundreds of millions of dollars, I think some accountability and transparency toward the taxpayers are owed."

Under the law, all records are presumed to be public records unless disclosure is barred by state or federal law or regulation, or judicial order, or attorney-client, doctor-patient, or one of several exceptions, including homeland security.

Who Is Subject To The Law?

  • Commonwealth Agencies: Any office, department, authority, or other parts of the executive branch, state-affiliated entities, independent agencies, including the Governor, Attorney General, Auditor General, and the Treasury Department.
  • Legislative Agencies: The Senate, House of Representatives, and many committees and commissions, such as the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.
  • Judicial Agencies: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Superior Court, Commonwealth Court, Common Pleas Courts, and Magisterial Courts.
  • Local Agencies: Municipal governments, County governments, other governmental entities, public school districts, intermediate units, charter schools and cyber charter schools.

Blake said that it's time to get rid of the exemption that allows the four state-related universities to keep their operations out of the public eye while receiving taxpayers' money. He said that one of his goals when he took office this year was to strengthen the Open Records law.

"In the wake of the tragic circumstances at Penn State, it kind of rekindled the interest to revisit the issue," Blake said.

Less Than 10% Comes From the State

The four universities argue that they should be exempted from the Open Records Law because they are quasi-public institutions that receive a mix of private and public funds.

For example, Penn State is receiving $279 million in state funding this year, or about 6.8 percent of its overall budget of $4.1 billion. Pitt's budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year is $1.94 billion, with $144.5 million, or 7.5 percent, coming from the state.

The current law does require the four universities to issue annual public reports that include IRS Form 990 information, plus the salaries of all officers and directors, and the highest 25 salaries of other employees.

Goal of the Legislation

Blake said that his intent is not to undermine their ability to compete for private donations or to injure their economic impact on the cities and regions where the schools are located, but rather to make the schools more accountable and transparent. He said that if the Open Records Law had applied to Penn State, perhaps it might have revealed information or allowed for earlier detection of the scandal including what, if anything, was reported about alleged incidents and to whom.

Blake believes that he has bipartisan support for his proposal. "We just need to do the research, do the deliberate analysis, and make sure that we come up with a statute that's a vast improvement from where we are right now," Blake said.

The legislation is to be introduced in January.