Questions Abound For Pennsylvania's Governor
Here is my column in this morning's Hartford Courant.
Normally, the scandal at Pennsylvania State University would raise crippling questions about the integrity of Gov. Tom Corbett. But because this case involves allegations of child abuse, we have suspended judgment. We have also forsaken allegiance to principles we pretend to hold dear, such as the presumption of innocence, fair play and the rule of law.
Corbett is doing the hero's walk: He urged the firing of football coach Joe Paterno and school president Graham Spanier. Even The New York Times is lionizing Corbett as a wise lawmaker capable of safely walking through an ethical minefield. Corbett's name could well be thrown into the mix as a Republican presidential candidate. But from afar, I'm wondering why there is no investigation of the governor.
Corbett became attorney general of Pennsylvania in 2004. He immediately created a special unit to investigate claims of child abuse. In 2009, the case involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky landed in his lap. He convened a secret grand jury to gather evidence, including the role of university officials. He cared more for his political ambitions, however. With the case still open, he was elected governor in 2010. As governor, he joined the Penn State board of trustees.
A lawyer, Corbett is presumably familiar with the loyalty he owes to Penn State as a board member. He would have us believe that he served as board member with nary a peep about the grand jury investigation of senior university administrators for their role in covering up the consequences of Sandusky's alleged lust. Perhaps he did say nothing. But there is no question that knowledge of the investigation colored his perception and influenced his judgment.
A lawyer cannot represent both sides of a conflict. You can be loyal to only one side. When a lawyer cannot serve both masters, he is supposed to serve neither. You don't pretend all is well.
That is what Corbett did. He should have stepped down as a trustee until the investigation was finished. He is now on a board that is paying the legal fees of administrators accused of lying to a grand jury, but firing a man who has not been accused of any crimes. The true north of his moral compass is set firmly in the direction of the press release.
Instead of integrity, we get the release of a secret grand jury report and the governor's urging prompt and decisive action against Paterno. Corbett postures as the poster boy for integrity in a year in which all politicians are roundly condemned.
The New York Times abandoned its role as critic to become a cheerleader. Its puff piece on Corbett reports: "The grand jury indictment had been filed under seal, but because of a computer glitch it had mistakenly been made public." Oh, really? I guess Pearl Harbor was just a training mission gone bad.
So Joe Paterno was kicked to the curb, summarily fired — presumably without a chance to address the charges against him. He is pilloried in the press. There are calls that Penn State should cancel the rest of its season, and, perhaps disband the football program. Mobs, especially self-righteous mobs, are like that. Like lust, self-righteousness is a passion that must spend itself completely.
The allegations involving Sandusky are so shocking they numb. It is not enough that children were molested on campus and that senior administrators turned a blind eye. New claims arise that young boys were made available to boosters of the university's athletic program. This is sick and twisted stuff. The shock of it all tempts us to forget the law and such basic building blocks of our society as a sense of fair play, including the presumption of innocence, and a sense of fair play in our civil dealings with one another.
This week we sacrificed a commitment to the rule of law to the far more gratifying satisfaction of universal tongue clucking and moral outrage: Those are the lynch mob's tool. The law demands deliberation and respect for process.
If you believe the secret grand jury report was "mistakenly" publicized, then you're probably prepared to accept a defense of the shower room antics of Jerry Sandusky suggesting he did nothing wrong, he merely slipped on a stray and slippery bar of soap.
Will Corbett call for an investigation of the grand jury leak?