A scandal the magnitude of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case has a way of shifting legal talking points, perhaps even changing state code. Let's hope it does. Because if all the nastiness about Sandusky is true, one of the main reasons for the protracted time-span of the abuse is Penn State's ability to hide behind toothless open records laws, all while hoovering up taxpayer money. The university's 2011-12 budget includes $279 million in state appropriations. Yet the only information about Penn State available to the taxpayer is some salary data and an IRS 990 report. For lack of a better word, that's bullshit.
Yesterday, I submitted a lengthy list of public records requests to Penn State seeking e-mails and other documents related to Sandusky. I received a brief reply this morning from Amy Elizabeth McCall, the school's assistant general counsel, denying all of my requests:
While the Pennsylvania State University (University) recognizes the current public interest in the requested information, please be advised the University is not a "Commonwealth agency" as defined under Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law (RTKL), 65 P.S. § 67.701 et seq.
Not a Commonwealth agency, even though the university spends $290 million in state money? What does that make State College, then? A neighborhood in East Berlin? I was shocked to learn that Pennsylvania open records law used to be even more restrictive. Until 2009, every record was considered closed. Then the Right to Know Law was passed. But a handful of schools that take public money managed to preserve their non-agency status: Penn State, Temple, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln.
"These institutions have enjoyed a controversial and blanket exemption," said Terry Mutchler, the executive director of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records.
It's impossible to say what could have been prevented if journalists or the public had better access to PSU records. But this Sandusky business is exactly why such records should be open.