By Ellen Wulfhorst
Jan 2 (Reuters) - Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett filed a lawsuit on Wednesday demanding that sanctions imposed on Penn State University over the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal be thrown out, saying they threatened to devastate the state’s economy.
Corbett called the sanctions imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, which include an unprecedented $60 million fine, “overreaching and unlawful.”
“I cannot and will not stand by and let it happen without a fight,” the Republican governor, who was accused of dragging his feet on the Penn State scandal when he was state attorney general, told a news conference.
A lawsuit Corbett filed with U.S. District Court in Harrisburg called for all Sandusky-related sanctions imposed on Penn State to be thrown out.
Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, was convicted in June of 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, some in the football team’s showers. The scandal implicated top university officials in a cover-up, including the late Joe Paterno, its longtime head football coach.
The NCAA, the governing body of U.S. collegiate sports, fined Penn State $60 million for failing to stop abuse by Sandusky. It also voided its football victories for the past 14 seasons and banned its football team from bowl games for four years.
Corbett’s suit charged the NCAA and “competing colleges and universities represented on its governing boards” had “cynically and hypocritically exploited” the case “to impose crippling and unprecedented sanctions on an already weakened competitor.”
The suit said stigma from the case would diminish recruitment of students and student athletes and the value of a Penn State education for decades.
According to Corbett’s office, Penn State football was the second most profitable collegiate athletic program in the United States in 2010-11, when it brought in $50 million, generating more than $5 million in tax revenue.
Corbett, who spoke at State College, where Penn State University is located, said the NCAA had overstepped its bounds and the case was “a criminal matter, not a violation of NCAA rules.”
Penn State University released a statement saying it was not party to Corbett’s lawsuit and reiterated its commitment to comply with the NCAA sanctions. The university recently made the first payment of $12 million of the fine to a national fund to support victims of child abuse.
A Philadelphia-based attorney who has followed the case closely questioned its chances of success and said it was unclear if Corbett had the legal authority to file such a suit.
“It’s not a frivolous lawsuit - there are real arguments to make - but, boy is it weak,” said Max Kennerly, adding that courts had generally sided with the NCAA on sanctions issues.
James Schultz, general counsel for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, said the governor had a legal right to sue, as he was acting on behalf of residents and businesses “collaterally damaged” by the NCAA sanctions.
He said the sanctions harmed the state’s tax revenue base and those relying on revenue from Penn State’s football program.
NCAA General Counsel Donald Remy said the lawsuit appeared to be without merit and was “an affront to all of the victims” whose lives were destroyed by Sandusky.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a group that takes aim at sex abuse in the Catholic Church, but has also been vocal in other cases, criticized Corbett’s action.
“At best, his lawsuit is frivolous,” the group said in a statement. “At worst, it threatens to delay or derail millions of dollars that would otherwise be devoted to protecting children.”
The Sandusky scandal was revealed by a grand jury Corbett convened in 2009 when he was Pennsylvania’s attorney general.
State Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, has pledged to probe Corbett’s handling of the case. She said last year that by convening the grand jury, Corbett failed to protect children by delaying prosecution for more than two years.
Corbett has said he would welcome an investigation.
Pennsylvania voters have also expressed dissatisfaction with Corbett’s handling of the case. A Franklin & Marshall College survey of registered voters in September found that nearly two-thirds thought he had done a fair or poor job.
But Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall and director of the poll, said the lawsuit would be popular among Pennsylvanians, even though Corbett might be accused of trying to further his own political ends.
The Franklin & Marshall poll found more than half of the Pennsylvania residents surveyed considered the sanctions unfair.
On Wednesday, Corbett denied any political motivation.
Kathy Punt, manager of a State College motel used by football fans, said her business had dropped 30 to 40 percent this past autumn as fewer people attended games. “We didn’t get the Penn State fans who usually come in,” she said.