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Documents Show University Called Off Joe Paterno Tribute

by on March 26, 2014 3:20 PM

Documents obtained under Pennsylvania's Right to Know law show that Penn State had planned to release a warm statement following the death of longtime football coach Joe Paterno.

The statement, from Penn State President Rodney Erickson, was a five paragraph message that included condolences for the Paterno family and a salute to Paterno's legacy.

The statement was sent to members of the Penn State Board of Trustees on the evening of Jan. 25, three days after Paterno's death.

It asked the Penn State community to support the Paternos, "with your thoughts and prayers."

The statement also remembered Paterno for, "his "Grand Experiment" of combining academic excellence with championship-caliber athletic performance. This approach set a new standard for all intercollegiate programs around the nation, and became known as the Penn State way -- "Success with Honor."

However, in the midst of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Paterno statement was never made public. A later email sent by the Director of the Board of Trustees Office Paula Ammerman, says, "President Erickson asked that I advise that we've decided not to release the statement ... but rather will include an introductory paragraph to his update report next week."

It appears there was also an effort to limit comments from board members to the media. An email from the Ketchum public relations firm says with the national media parsing every comment, it is paramount "that the board speaks with one voice."

Ketchum advised board members to "refrain from offering opinions about events at Penn State." The email says board members should refer media inquiries to designated spokespeople and included suggested statements, such as, "My opinions are shared with the board of trustees. Together, we make decisions and take actions."

The documents were released through the efforts of Ryan Bagwell, a 2002 Penn State graduate who is running for a seat on the board of trustees. Bagwell is founder of the Sunshine Fund, an organization devoted to uncovering information about the university's handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Bagwell has filed dozens of Right to Know requests seeking emails and documents.

As a state-related school Penn State is not subject to the Right to Know law. However, certain members of the board of trustees who are involved in state government are covered under some circumstances. Bagwell was able to obtain a series of emails between board members, including former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis.

Bagwell recently submitted 500 pages of documents to the media that were obtained through the Office of Open Records. He is seeking another 150 pages that were withheld because of attorney-client privilege.

Bagwell is challenging that decision and has filed an appeal to the Commonwealth Court. In an email he says, "We believe that there is a significant body of evidence to demonstrate that Penn State waived the privilege by allowing [Louis] Freeh to discuss his investigation with law enforcement agencies, the NCAA, the Big Ten conference and a Pa. congressman."

Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers says the university does not plan to comment on any emails.

Steve Bauer was the Managing Editor of Steve and his wife Trina are longtime area residents. They reside in State College along with a wacky Golden Retriever named Izzy.
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