Gov. Corbett hears it from all sides on Sandusky investigation

FILE - In this March 8, 2011 file photo, Gov. Tom Corbett delivers his budget address for the fiscal year 2011-2012 to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa., As he marks his 100th day as Pennsylvania's governor, on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 Corbett's no-new-taxes pledge is still stirring debate. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
FILE - In this March 8, 2011 file photo, Gov. Tom Corbett delivers his budget address for the fiscal year 2011-2012 to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa., As he marks his 100th day as Pennsylvania's governor, on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 Corbett's no-new-taxes pledge is still stirring debate. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Posted: August 10, 2012

IT'S HARD TO imagine a political cause that would unite longtime Harrisburg gadfly Gene Stilp, liberal activist Michael Morrill and conservative columnist Chris Freind.

But in recent weeks, all have voiced loud support for what may be a quixotic quest for an investigation into whether Gov. Corbett mishandled the probe of convicted Penn State serial child molester Jerry Sandusky when Corbett was state attorney general.

The Corbett critics insist that their questions about the first two years of the child-sex probe — whether Corbett didn't put enough people on the case and whether political considerations were the reasons why — transcend their ideological differences.

"This is not a political issue for me — it's personal," said Morrill, executive director of the progressive lobbying group Keystone Progress, who said Corbett's handling of the case troubled him as a father, not as a liberal. He said he waited months before launching an online petition drive that's attracted more than 12,000 signatures. "I was hoping someone else would call for one."

Despite the growing chatter in the public arena, there are a couple of huge obstacles to a formal probe of Corbett, who served two stints at the state's top prosecutor before he was sworn in as governor in January 2011. Arguably, the biggest roadblocks are political: GOP majorities in both houses in Harrisburg are unlikely to investigate one of their own, and even Democrats are reluctant to battle with Corbett. A measure from a Democratic legislator from Washington County calling for an investigation of the Sandusky prosecution has at least 25 backers, but the bill has been bottled up in committee.

Additionally, legal experts say that — absent some unlikely "smoking-gun" memo or email — it would be virtually impossible to show official misconduct by either Corbett or his underlings, so any investigation could end up looking like little more than a partisan witch hunt.

And of course there's this: Corbett has said in several interviews that his critics are all wet, that it took a long time to build a solid case that Sandusky had molested 10 boys during the 1990s and 2000s.

"Once it came to our office, we put agents on it," Corbett told reporters last month. "And in fact, we put agents on it who were — I don't know if this is publicly known — they were pure narcotic investigators from up in that region. But they had all been police officers before. And they dug into this."

However, Corbett's remarks actually highlighted one of the key allegations of the governor's critics. Their main unanswered questions:

Why did Corbett initially have only one agent on the case and later just two narcotics officers — as opposed to investigators who specialized in child-sex crimes — during most of the 22 months between the time the first allegation was turned over to his office and his ascension to the governor's mansion? And why did the probe gain steam only after his appointed successor, Attorney General Linda Kelly, took charge?

Did Corbett shortchange the Sandusky case because so many agents were assigned to the political-corruption probe called "Bonusgate," which became his main selling point in the gubernatorial election? Did he fear the political ramifications of charging Sandusky and tarnishing the reputation of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, given the popularity of Penn State football across the state? And was he swayed by the fact that some members of the board of Sandusky's charity, the Second Mile, were campaign donors?

What's more, critics have questioned why the Corbett administration went ahead with a $3 million grant for the Second Mile after he became governor, given that he was aware of the serious allegations against the former Penn State defensive coordinator. Corbett has argued that withholding the money would have tipped off the probe's targets.

The most withering criticism came from fellow conservative Freind, who wrote last month in the Delaware County Daily Times that although he has enthusiastically backed the GOP governor on thorny issues including natural-gas drilling and school choice, Corbett simply had lost him on the Sandusky probe.

"One of two things seems to be true, as there is no third option," Freind wrote. "Either A) you were an incompetent attorney general, which virtually no one believes, or B) the investigation was deliberately understaffed and drawn out because you did not wish to be the gubernatorial candidate who took down fabled Penn State — with its massive and intensely loyal alumni network — and the beloved Joe Paterno."

Stilp, who gained recognition for his successful fight against the midnight legislative pay raise in 2005 and who now is running for Congress in central Pennsylvania as a Democrat, has been calling for the U.S. Justice Department to look into Corbett's handling of the case since Sandusky was indicted in November.

"Were any children harmed during those 22 months?" Stilp asked in an interview. "Did Sandusky actively continue his criminal ways? That's a real concern."

In Harrisburg, Democratic state Rep. Brandon Neuman of Washington County, south of Pittsburgh, introduced a measure in December calling for the U.S. attorney general to investigate the state's handling of the Sandusky case — particularly why it took so long to bring charges. The bill is stuck in the House Rules Committee.

"I've had people tell me that because I'm a Democrat and he's a Republican, that it's political," Neuman acknowledged. "But no one has told me that what I'm doing is wrong."

But a California-based expert on prosecutorial misconduct said that although an investigation might help prosecutors and others learn lessons for future cases, the danger is that it would appear to be nothing more than a partisan witch hunt, especially because sanctions against Corbett would be unlikely based on currently known facts.

"There is a broad discretion to a prosecutor," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles. "In hindsight, it's always easy to say he should have done more. But if you're investigating someone like Jerry Sandusky or Joe Paterno, you know that's something you can't put together overnight."

Contact Will Bunch at 215-854-2957 or bunchw@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Will_Bunch and read his blog, Attytood.com. We invite you to comment on this story by clicking here. Comments will be moderated.

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