Questions raised by Penn State e-mails

Posted: July 09, 2012

As the full painting of Jerry Sandusky comes into focus, so, too, does an emerging backdrop of cover-up among an old boys' network at the highest levels of Pennsylvania State University. Information gleaned from four e-mails shown to CNN provides the latest brushstrokes.

The e-mails were circulated among Penn State president Graham B. Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and university vice president Gary Schultz. They evidence consideration of reporting the 2001 shower incident between Sandusky and a boy, witnessed by Mike McQueary, and a decision not to report the incident to authorities after one of the men apparently had a conversation with Joe Paterno.

According to CNN, McQueary went to Paterno's house on Feb. 10, 2001, to tell him what he'd seen. More than two weeks later, on Feb. 26, Schultz e-mailed Curley, outlining a three-part plan including: "talk with the subject ASAP regarding the future appropriate use of the University facility," "contacting the chair of the charitable organization" (he was referring to Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded), and "contacting the Department of Welfare."

But something had changed by the following evening. On Feb. 27, Curley e-mailed Spanier, sending a copy to Schultz. In that e-mail, CNN reports, "Curley indicates he no longer wants to contact child welfare authorities just yet. He refers to a conversation the day before with Paterno. Curley allegedly writes: ‘After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday, I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps.'?" CNN also reports that Curley refers to a 1998 incident involving Sandusky and a boy that was investigated but not prosecuted.

If there was a plan to contact the authorities one day, and the next day there wasn't, there is an obvious question as to whether Paterno influenced that decision.

"We don't know what the conversation was, assuming it actually took place, but it certainly appears to show for the first time that Joe Paterno apparently had another conversation not previously known," CNN investigative reporter Susan Candiotti told me last week.

Recall that before his death, Paterno told the Washington Post, "I had never heard a thing" about prior bad behavior by Sandusky. But he hedged when asked in front of the grand jury, according to the testimony released by prosecutors: "I think you said something about a rumor. It may have been discussed in my presence, something else about somebody. I don't know. I don't remember, and I could not honestly say I heard a rumor."

It's entirely possible that Paterno was referring to the 1998 incident, which would strengthen speculation that the investigation into that incident precipitated Sandusky's "retirement" the following year. Schultz told the grand jury that "Sandusky retired when Paterno felt it was time to make a coaching change and also to take advantage of an enhanced retirement benefit under Sandusky's state pension." But that strains credulity.

Why, after the success of the 1999 season, would Paterno have desired to make a coaching change? Sandusky was just in his mid-50s. Published accounts indicate that in 1998 or 1999, he sought to institute a football program at Penn State's Altoona campus, and later, he interviewed for a head coaching position at the University of Virginia. Does that sound like a man ready to retire from football?

The third of the e-mails shared with CNN came a few hours after the second. Now it was Spanier responding to Curley's request for feedback regarding the new plan, with a copy to Schultz, in which Spanier agrees not to report Sandusky to authorities. In an amazing understatement, CNN reports, Spanier writes: "The only downside for us is if the message [to Sandusky] isn't ‘heard' and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it." Spanier then tells Curley, "The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed." Humane? Certainly not toward the victims.

Spanier's participation in this e-mail chain could conflict with the statement he issued upon being fired, when he said: "I was stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility or by someone associated with the university. ... I would never hesitate to report a crime if I had any suspicion that one had been committed."

Schultz's response comes the following afternoon, Feb. 28, when he writes to Curley and Spanier, agreeing with the "humane" approach.

"I don't physically have the e-mails but the contents were made available to me," Candiotti told me last week. She also said she has a high degree of confidence in their authenticity. Through a lawyer, the Paterno family decried the leak of such information and called upon former FBI director Louis Freeh, who is leading the investigation at Penn State, to release all relevant e-mails.

In reporting on the CNN e-mails, Jo Becker at the New York Times said, "Freeh's investigators are also exploring the circumstances surrounding Paterno's decision to eventually hire McQueary as an assistant. ... McQueary was ultimately hired over another, more experienced candidate, and investigators are curious about whether that development came as a consequence of what he told Paterno that morning in 2001."

That is a reference to something I reported here last February, that 29-year-old former quarterback McQueary was hired to coach wide receivers four years after witnessing the shower incident, at a time when 42-year-old former all-American receiver Kenny Jackson (who had coached receivers at Penn State and for the Pittsburgh Steelers) was available. Of course, McQueary's resume had one thing over Jackson, who told me he never solicited the job: a report to Paterno about what he'd seen in the Lasch building showers in 2001.

If the e-mails are accurate, here are the questions they raise: Did a small circle of Penn Staters know about Sandusky in 2001 and make a decision not to report him? Did some of those involved in evaluating the 2001 incident know of reports in 1998? If they were willing to treat Sandusky humanely in 2001, were they also willing to allow him a quiet exit from coaching three years before? Was McQueary rewarded with a job for not violating the circle of trust?

Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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