Pa. legislators consider opening records at Penn State, other public schools

Delaware legislators weighing similar measure

PENNSYLVANIA — On the same day that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on new molestation charges, state legislators released the text of a bill that would bring the university into the reach of Pennsylvania’s public records law.

House Bill 2051 would amend the Right-to-Know law to include within its purview “state-related” institutions, including four of the state’s major universities: Penn State University, Temple University, Lincoln University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania is one of two states, along with Delaware, with public universities that are not required to comply with state disclosure regulations.

State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York County, introduced the bill, along with 34 co-signers, Monday. Under the new law, the universities would be required to release any documents, records or official correspondences as defined by the existing public records law. The requirements already apply to most state agencies, including Pennsylvania’s other public colleges.

In the wake of the allegations against Sandusky and the Penn State football program, The Associated Press has reported the university denied requests for documents pertaining to a 1998 investigation into the former coach’s behavior. The university cited its exemption from the law as reason for the denial.

While the recent scandal at Penn State was certainly an impetus for the proposal, DePasquale had other motivations as well.

“The main driver for me is the money,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The state puts significant amounts of financial resources into them, as does the government.”

State Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna County, is expected to introduce a similar version in that chamber later this month.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said she had not yet seen the bill and could not comment on the specific legislation. But she said the university has supported legislation in the past regarding financial transparency and has put information online, including academic and administrative budgets and the median and mean salaries of all employees.

“We fully agree with the need for strict fiscal accountability,” Powers said. “If the Legislature revisits this issue, we will revisit it with them and have similar discussions about things we think should be considered as they rewrite the law.”

Officials at Temple are still looking over the proposed legislation, said Ray Betzner, a university spokesman.

“We’ve clearly heard what the concerns of the members of the state general assembly are,” Betzner said. “We are looking at the legislation now, and we are looking forward to working with legislators to meet their needs and meet their concerns.”

The university would abide by any changes the Legislature makes, he added.

“We make a great effort to abide by the current law, and if that law changes, we will make great effort to abide by whatever the new legislation is,” Betzner said. “We have a commitment to doing that.”

Lincoln University officials have questions about the new legislation, said spokeswoman Cherie Amoore.

“From what I’m hearing about Rep. DePasquale, he just really wants to increase the transparency,” Amoore said. “The Board of Trustees will definitely have some questions about that as far as what they’ll be looking for.”

Those concerns include whether the new regulations will require disclosure of items related to solicitation, donor information or “things that can make the university less competitive.”

She added that Lincoln officials do not foresee major problems.

“We don’t have anything to hide at Lincoln University, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” Amoore said.

In its original version, the Right-to-Know law required the four state-related universities to disclose nothing. An amendment in 2008 mandated the release of limited financial documents, such as the highest employee salaries.

Pennsylvania universities are not alone in seeing potential transparency changes. Delaware Reps. John Kowalko, D-Dover, and J.J. Johnson, D-Jefferson Farms, introduced House Bill 126 in the state Legislature in May.

The bill would redefine the University of Delaware and Delaware State University as “public bodies” under the auspices of the state’s open-records and open-meetings laws. The universities would be required to disclose all activities and documents “relating to the expenditure of public funds.”

Existing law considers only the schools’ board of trustees to be public bodies.

In light of the situation in Pennsylvania, Kowalko said he’s optimistic about the bill’s chances.

“For numerous reasons, I find HB 126 very necessary for the enlightenment of my constituents and all Delaware taxpayers,” he said.

Johnson and Kowalko hope to have the bill heard in committee in January — when the Legislature returns to session — and will be pushing for it to reach the floor for a vote, Kowalko said.

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