July of 2012 was notable for several reasons: the hottest month on record, both parties gearing up for the presidential campaign, and the voluntarily acceptance of harsh NCAA sanctions by the Penn State Board of Trustees, which includes Governor Tom Corbett.
A half -year later, all have evolved predictably: it’s cold, the President won, and Corbett has flip-flopped in an ill-fated attempt to bolster his image in the PSU/Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Tom and Jerry Show — a tragic comedy — just keeps getting better.
In a nakedly obvious political calculation, Corbett has reversed himself on the penalties, and is now suing the NCAA for "overreaching and unlawful sanctions."
Wow. What a change of heart, since it was only last July when he stated, "part of the corrective process is to accept the serious penalties imposed by the NCAA on Penn State University and its football program."
The $64,000 question is "Why?" Why the 180-degree change, and why now, instead of when the sanctions were announced? For those answers, let’s play Corbett’s version of Let’s Make A Deal:
Corbett answer behind Door Number One: "I wanted to thoroughly research the issue to make sure we were on solid legal footing." Uh, sorry, but no prize. For months leading up to the announcement, even the most remote Eskimos knew severe sanctions were a certainty. The NCAA bylaws aren’t all that complicated, so Corbett (himself a former U.S. Attorney and twice the state’s Attorney General), his General Counsel, his attorney Chief of Staff, and an army of other Administration lawyers could have easily determined — way ahead of time — if A) the NCAA could legally impose sanctions; B) if so, what sanctions should be off the table; and C) if the Administration had legal footing to sue the NCAA should it impose them anyway. And as a Trustee, Corbett clearly would have been party to discussions with the NCAA about the forthcoming sanctions.
Corbett’s Door Number Two: He waited so that the football team could avoid another distraction. Wrong again! Football season doesn’t start in July, and the football team was already dealing with Sandusky fallout. Ironically, a Corbett lawsuit in July would have had the opposite effect— becoming a rallying cry for the team that someone was standing up for them.
Door Three: "I didn’t want to make the same mistake the NCAA made by carelessly rushing in." Well, that one fits, since Corbett, as the Attorney General investigating Sandusky, made absolutely no rush to get a serial predator off the street, taking a staggering three years to make an arrest, conveniently after his gubernatorial election. True "carelessness" was Corbett assigning two narcotics agents to investigate Sandusky, while scores of agents (including child predator units) pursued a headline-generating political corruption case in which no children were at risk.
Door Four: "After months of research and deliberation, as well as discussions with alumni, students, faculty, business owners and elected officials, (Corbett) concluded that the NCAA’s sanctions were overreaching and unlawful." So is the suit because the NCAA is violating its bylaws, or because souvenir shops aren’t selling as many Nittany Lion magnets? And, despite the vast legal knowledge of those constituencies, since when do they factor into whether a lawsuit should be filed?
Taxpayers should understand that the substantial cost of this lawsuit will be footed by them, since neither Administration lawyers nor the Attorney General will handle it. Instead, that prize goes to top-of-the-line law firm Cozen O’Connor. Cozen (and its attorneys and family members) contributed almost $100,000 to the Governor’s campaigns, and is the former firm of Corbett’s new General Counsel.
Now let’s get serious and look at the real reasons behind Corbett’s newfound love of Penn State. While he is now busy acting like its savior, let us not forget his grandstanding, doing his best impression of a Roman Emperor wanting to raze Penn State and sow its fields with salt, just like Carthage.
Has Corbett finally realized he is about to become the first governor to lose a second term? He is already one of the nation’s least popular governors, and, with the exception of demagoguing on Penn State (when convenient), is spotted in public less than Bigfoot. Now, he is at the point in politics where they separate the men from the boys, and he is frantically reaching for something with wide appeal.
Suing the NCAA won’t help Corbett, even if his lawsuit is successful, as Pennsylvanians see right through his ploy. Many view him as part of the process which went overboard in destroying Penn State’s reputation and giving Joe Paterno a premature death. And even more think he deliberately understaffed the Sandusky investigation — leaving children to potentially suffer at Sandusky’s hands — so that he wouldn’t alienate Penn State alumni while running for governor. Corbett’s blatant pandering has only furthered the resolve of so many to end his tenure with a resounding sack.
And maybe Corbett is trying to distract incoming Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the first Democrat ever to hold that office, who not coincidentally wasn’t consulted about the Governor’s lawsuit. Kane, it is worth noting, just won more votes than anyone in Pennsylvania history (including the President), a feat directly attributable to one issue: cleaning up Harrisburg, starting with an investigation into how Corbett handled the Sandusky investigation.
Put another way, would Tom Corbett have filed this lawsuit had his hand-picked candidate for Attorney General beaten Kane?
But we do have the lawsuit, and with it, two more major Corbett inconsistencies: 1) "conservatives" like the governor always rail against activist judges — until, like now, they need one. And 2) Corbett stated that, if successful, he will urge the Board to use the $60 million to help groups working against abuse. While a nice thought, is that not completely undermining his argument that the fines are creating an unacceptable burden on so many in the PSU community? Is there anyone in the Governor’s office who has really thought this lawsuit through?
Truth is, this woefully miscalculated effort will accomplish only one thing: a major backfire.
For the record, this author stated his opposition to the sanctions when they were first imposed. A courageous Board of Trustees would have fought the NCAA as former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian did — who eventually won a multimillion settlement. But they, including Corbett, chose not to pursue action, voluntarily accepting the punishment from an organization to which Penn State voluntarily belongs. One can debate the prudence of the Board’s decision, but the University’s message is clear: it wants to put the Sandusky matter behind it as quickly as possible, which is why it is not party to the lawsuit.
Corbett had his chance, but for whatever the reason — indecisiveness, incompetence, political motivations — he failed to act, and that ship has long sailed.
But the Tom and Jerry Show is far from over. The Governor is on a collision course with voters (especially his own Republicans) who demand answers about Sandusky — answers that Corbett refuses to give. These are questions that go to the very core of Tom Corbett’s true character. And they are questions that may well lead him to the dustbin of political history — or, depending on what Kane finds, worse.
How will this show end? Attorney General-elect Kane, the floor is yours.