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Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State among 4 Pennsylvania universities with exemptions from state open records law

"Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University...maintain independent administrative control." "The criminal allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach accused of sexually abusing young boys, have prompted questions about what officials at Penn State knew and when.

But the public’s access to e-mails, phone records and other potentially critical evidence is restricted because Penn State has a special exemption from having to disclose a host of information that state agencies and many other state universities are forced to divulge under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.

Historically, Pennsylvania had one of the most restrictive open records laws of any state. All state records were presumed to be closed unless citizens could prove why the information they wanted should be disclosed.

But scandals involving campaign financing, pay for state lawmakers and spending abuses by a state agency led legislators in 2008 to drastically rewrite the law for the first time in a half century. Now, the assumption is that all state records are open unless public officials can argue otherwise.

When the wide-ranging overhaul of the state’s open records provisions was made three years ago, however, exemptions were included. Practically none of the revisions pertain to Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University, which have a special state-related status in Pennsylvania because they receive public financing but maintain independent administrative control.

They are required only to issue annual reports by May 30 and make public the salaries of their officers and directors and 25 highest-paid employees.

Representatives of these universities pushed for their colleges to be exempt because, among other things, they said they would have a harder time soliciting donations if the donors’ identities could be made public. That would put them on an uneven footing when competing for dollars with private universities.

However, critics then and now argue that any university that receives taxpayer funds should be open to scrutiny. This fiscal year, the four state-related universities will receive about $560 million in public money, with nearly half, or $272 million, of that money destined for Penn State.

“Any time you have dimes and dollars and put them in the dark, you have the potential for significant problems,” said Terry Mutchler, the executive director of the state’s Office of Open Records. “Having the strongest right-to-know laws wouldn’t have prevented what happened, but there might have been more availability, and it might provide a reverse road map.”

Mutchler said her office has received a flood of requests for information about how to request internal documents from Penn State since Sandusky was charged last week.

Because of the growing scandal at Penn State, State Senator John Blake, a Democrat from northeastern Pennsylvania, says he plans to introduce legislation that would end the exemption for state-related institutions....

Blake does not have a co-sponsor for his bill, but he said he hoped that Dominic Pileggi, the majority leader in the state senate and the prime sponsor of the Open Records Law revision three years ago, would help close the loophole.

Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senator Pileggi, said the Senate was considering various amendments to the law, but that there was no timetable for action on any proposed changes.

It is always good and proper to review open records law as situations arise, and this is clearly one of those situations,” Arneson said."

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