Is Pa. Gov. Corbett’s flip-flop start of 2014 bid?
Jerry Sandusky sits in a cell in a maximum security prison for all but a few hours a week, and still Tom Corbett can’t get away from him.
The child sex scandal that Corbett helped uncover as attorney general grew to dominate his term as governor, rallied his critics and received new life from the governor last week with his unexpected announcement on Wednesday that he was suing the NCAA to block its sanctions against Penn State University — sanctions he once praised.
The lawsuit is the “opening salvo of the 2014 campaign” for governor, said Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, a Republican considering a primary challenge to Corbett.
“Politically, (the lawsuit) makes sense, even if legally it’s a reach,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
If the NCAA’s penalties against the Penn State football program are reduced because of the lawsuit, Corbett “will be received favorably by a large number of those in the Penn State community, who looked at him as an adversary.”
The school boasts the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world and counts 560,000 graduates.
Corbett says politics played no role in his decision to file the lawsuit, in which he claims the NCAA violated its own rules, as well as antitrust law, in punishing Penn State.
“I didn’t grow up a politician,” Corbett said on Friday on the WITF radio program “Smart Talk.” “I grew up a prosecutor, and I make decisions based on the facts that are in front of me.”
Corbett’s political fortunes have remained close to the case since his role in the scandal began.
While attorney general, Corbett created his campaign committee for governor in March 2009, the same month he began investigating Sandusky, a retired assistant football coach. By the end of 2009, board members of The Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded and used to groom his victims, had donated nearly $7,000 to the committee, according to the campaign’s first finance report.
Once he became governor, Corbett nominated a successor to continue the investigation in the biggest scandal in Penn State’s history. At the same time, he took a seat on the university’s Board of Trustees and proposed a budget that cut 50 percent of state funding to Penn State and other schools.
“It’s a difficult situation — unique as well — going from the prosecutor who started investigating to the governor to a board member,” said state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, whose district includes Penn State, from which he graduated in 1993 and later served on The Second Mile board.
Corbett, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told WITF that he did not attend board meetings before Sandusky’s arrest on charges that he abused 10 boys over 15 years.
“One of the reasons I stayed away from there was not to put myself in that situation,” Corbett said. “You can’t do a wink and a nod. You have to (give) no indication of what’s going on at all.”
When a $3 million grant for The Second Mile came across his desk in July 2011, four months before Sandusky’s arrest but three months after The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News first reported on the investigation, Corbett approved it.
He participated in his first Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 9 of that year, just after Sandusky’s arrest, and voted with the rest of the board to fire head football coach Joe Paterno and oust President Graham Spanier.
Speaking to trustees by phone from the library of the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg, Corbett answered questions about grand jury procedure but mostly remained quiet about the storm battering Penn State — a storm he helped brew and likely knew was coming longer than any other trustee.
“The only thing I said as they were getting ready to vote — and it didn’t pertain to any one individual — (was) ‘You have to remember the children,’” Corbett said.
As the country’s attention turned to the tragedy in Happy Valley, Corbett took his place before the cameras and pleaded for calm from enraged students and healing for a wounded campus.
A jury in June convicted Sandusky, 68, who is serving 30 to 60 years in prison.
Eventually, questions focused on Corbett’s long history with the 33-month investigation. When a report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh came out detailing the school administration’s failure to stop Sandusky, a Philadelphia reporter asked if Corbett saw any way he could have pushed the investigation along faster.
Corbett pounded the podium.
“Why are you all obsessed with that?” he asked, visibly agitated.
Ten days later, on July 23, Penn State President Rodney Erickson signed a consent decree with the NCAA that blamed school administrators for complacence and levied some of the harshest sanctions in the association’s history. They include a $60 million fine, a ban from football bowl games for four years and reduced scholarships.
Corbett expressed gratitude that the NCAA had not killed Penn State’s football program, and he urged people to accept the penalties as a part of the healing process.
Many Penn State faithful felt abandoned.
“We graduated our players. We stayed competitive. Joe Paterno taught us, for lack of a better term, that success with honor was the only way to go,” said Corman, who is waging his own legal fight to keep the $60 million fine in Pennsylvania.
“What Penn State agreed to in the consent decree basically said that everything we believed in all those years was wrong,” he said. “Until I see the facts to back that up, I’m not ready to believe that.”
Five months and one football season later, Corbett reversed himself and sued the NCAA to stop the sanctions.
“I think it is more political than anything else,” said Scott Brady, 62, a Ford City Republican. He said Corbett is “grandstanding. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s his poll numbers.”
Sixty-six percent of people think he did not handle the investigation well, according to a Franklin & Marshall College Poll from September.
The saga puts Corbett in yet another role: an embattled incumbent poised to embark on his re-election bid, facing an investigation of how he handled the incident from incoming Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
Kane declined to comment.