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By JEREMY ROEBUCK AND JOHN P. MARTIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012

In the days after Jerry Sandusky's arrest on child sex-abuse charges, thousands of letters and e-mails poured into Gov. Tom Corbett's office from every corner of the world advocating every conceivable action:

Fire Pennsylvania State University president Graham B. Spanier.

Reinstate coach Joe Paterno.

Cancel the Penn State football season, some said.

Others offered high praise or criticism for the governor:

You are a hero and should run for president.

You are a scoundrel who covered up sex abuse and belong in jail.

"Act, act quickly and decisively on the Penn State issue," read one. "Do your due diligence, but act."

 

No issue outside the state budget debate has attracted such a raw response, said Corbett spokesman Kevin Hartley.

Obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer under the state's Right to Know law, the letters offer a glimpse of the reaction in the days after a statewide grand jury in November accused Sandusky, Paterno's former assistant, of molesting eight boys over a decade and two university officials of turning a blind eye.

Meanwhile, e-mails from Corbett's top advisers - also obtained from the month after the scandal broke - provide a window into an administration grappling with a rapidly unfolding story of national consequence for the state's premier public university and Corbett himself.

But the picture is incomplete. Notably, no e-mails or other writings from Corbett are included. Parts of several other documents - including e-mails and addresses for - were redacted.

In its response to The Inquirer, the governor's office cited state law that allows it to withhold records that related to active investigations or an agency's internal deliberations.

Within hours of Sandusky's Nov. 5 arrest the missives began pouring in. They included e-mails from a North Carolina mother seeking harsh punishment for Sandusky, handwritten notes from sexual-abuse victims, and letters from American expatriates eager to weigh in from locales such as Switzerland and Morocco.

There was even a note from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, fresh off the Republican presidential campaign trail at the time. It included a pitch for a Minnesota law firm.

"Please find an e-mail from a prominent MN law firm which highlights the experience of one of their partners in investigating misconduct and scandals," Pawlenty wrote in recommending Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, a major donor to political candidates in the North Star State.

Pawlenty was not alone in offering more than opinions.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and a South Carolina-based victims' rights group, Darkness to Light, both offered their services.

Linda Ammons, associate dean of Widener University's law school, and Stephen Krentzman, owner of a Lewistown scrap-metal business, recommended themselves to serve on any resulting boards or committees.

Then there was this from an elementary schoolteacher in Carbon County: "I know that you have been busy with the tragedy at Penn State, but I thought you might like to be a part of some good that an educational place can do."

Her request?

That the governor come read the morning announcements at her school.

Developing a reaction

Corbett's staff, meanwhile, was focused on shoring up its own reaction, following what university trustees were telling the press and monitoring the response from Penn State officials, the documents suggest.

A Nov. 14 e-mail exchange between Jennifer Branstetter, the governor's policy director, and administrators of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education outlines efforts to tighten reporting policies within Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities. Penn State, while a recipient of state funds, is not a state-owned school.

"From PSU, we can see there is much confusion and uncertainty," wrote Dean Weber, director of the system's internal risk office.

Branstetter, also Corbett's nonvoting representative on the Penn State board, often served as a conduit for university officials to the governor's office as they attempted to control the fallout.

She forwarded dozens of memos from newly appointed university president Rodney Erickson and others to top Corbett advisers.

"A review of the Top 20 search terms on Google today show no Penn State terms on that list for the first time in nine days," said one Nov. 14 update from Erickson.

Mixed reviews

Corbett's response and that of university officials drew mixed opinions from those on the outside. The governor read many of the letters and helped respond to several, said Hartley, his spokesman.

David Saxe, an education professor at Penn State, wrote the governor to criticize a lack of transparency on the campus.

"Every dean, every department head, every administrator . . . was forced to swear fidelity or be silenced," he wrote. "I urge you to do anything to change this culture . . . that has become Penn State."

Shannon Lyons, a criminal defense lawyer in Colorado, echoed the response of dozens of others who condemned Corbett for what they viewed as his failure to "clean house." Most of these letters arrived before the university's decision to boot Paterno and Spanier.

That development launched its own torrent of e-mails. No other aspect of the scandal drew more input than Paterno's firing Nov. 9.

"This moment is a test of whether Paterno is Penn State or whether Penn State is bigger than Paterno," Lyons wrote.

Bruce Pringle, however, joined the chorus of hundreds who wrote Corbett to protest the longtime coach's ouster.

"Joe Paterno did what the law and employment practices of Penn State required," he said. "You waited until you saw which way the political wind was blowing and joined the witch hunt."

Their correspondences were met with a curt form response urging their authors to contact Penn State: "Gov. Corbett does not have authority over the university's internal personnel decisions."

Corbett had remained largely quiet in the early days of the scandal, ceding the spotlight to his attorney general, Linda Kelly. That left some unhappy.

"I voted for you once, and would never vote for you again," wrote Jeanene V. Hill of Reading. "Quit hiding in your governor's mansion."

Opinions swayed notably the weekend he first took to the airwaves in interviews with several TV news outlets and became the subject of a positive Nov. 11 profile in the New York Times.

"I strongly differ with your positions on most issues, voted for your opponent in the previous election and will probably do so again should you seek reelection," said Richard Tennenbaum. "Nevertheless, I applaud your handling of the Penn State situation."

One writer suggested Corbett run for president.

For some, including a woman who said she had been molested for years by her father, Corbett's real test will come after the Penn State headlines die down and the real work of legislating begins.

"It is time for a defining moment in Pennsylvania," she wrote. "I share my story with you in the hopes that it will make a difference."

Staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.

 

 

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