Rep aims to close Penn State's open records loopholes

State College - Centre Daily TimesNovember 22, 2011 

In response to what he called the “bewilderment” of people watching the child sexual abuse scandal unfold at Penn State, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff said he plans to introduce legislation to make more information about state-related universities available to the public.

Pennsylvania’s open records law, which received an overhaul in 2008, presumes that records of most state and local government agencies are open to the public, with 30 specific exemptions.

However, Penn State, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in state support, were largely exempted from the law. Each is required only to provide an annual report that includes the salaries of officers, directors and the 25 highest-paid employees, along with information from Internal Revenue Service Form 990.

Gov. Tom Corbett has raised the question of whether a lack of openness contributed to the scandal revolving around allegations that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted eight boys, and that university administrators failed to report one instance of abuse.

“I think the assumption is, shine the light on it, make it more open,” Benninghoff said. “If it’s good enough for the state-owned schools, than it’s good enough for the state-related.”

Records of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities are presumed open.

Penn State this year received $270 million in state support, equal to about 14 percent of its general education budget.

Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, was a member of the bipartisan Speaker’s Commission on Legislative Reform in 2007, which was tasked, in part, with discussing changes to the open records law. He said he supported making state-related universities subject to the law.

In the wake of the scandal, Benninghoff said he and other lawmakers have received many requests to enact related legislation, such as changing the law that specifies who must report suspected child abuse.

Benninghoff said he thinks it would be reasonable for the General Assembly to change the open records law.

“... There is a legal and judicial process that is now going on,” he said. “The last thing I want Harrisburg to do is complicate that. The exemption was a relatively quick thing the General Assembly could do which would give some sense of making the playing field equal, regardless of institution.”

Tor McCartney, chief of staff to Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, said Conklin “absolutely” would support that.

“Rep. Conklin has always been a strong advocate for transparency,” he said.

Deborah Musselman, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said she’s encouraged by the legislation, for which Benninghoff is collecting co-sponsors.

“Our perspective is really on the fact that we believe, since Penn State does get a substantial amount of money from state agencies, it’s just clearly appropriate for them to be subject to the law to a greater extent than they are now,” she said.

In 2007, then-university President Graham Spanier argued Penn State would lose millions of dollars from donors who didn’t want their names made public. Benninghoff and Musselman said that argument doesn’t stand.

“I think it was a convenient flag to wave to get that exemption that he knew would be far more comprehensive,” Benninghoff said, noting many donor names already are public. “They do a tremendous amount of naming rights.”

Musselman pointed out that one of 30 exemptions to the open records law is for donors to an agency, except for those “intended for a named public official or employee.”

Benninghoff said his intent is to try to prevent future scandals.

“Any obstacle that we can eliminate to prevent something like this from happening again, I think, is important,” he said. “Even myself, it’s pretty hard to get your arms around, mentally and emotionally, especially for these young people who are the true blue-white. It really cracked their bubble for awhile. They’re grasping for something to give them a little hope of prevention.”

To read more, visit www.centredaily.com.

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