Ruling on Sandusky files may broadly affect Pa. open-records cases

Posted: July 22, 2013

A Commonwealth Court ruling in a case related to the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal could have broad open-records implications for state-related schools.

Rayn Bagwell, a Pennsylvania State University alumnus, had sought records concerning how the school responded to the scandal but was rebuffed by the state Department of Education, and his appeal was dismissed by the state Office of Open Records.

But in an opinion released Friday, Commonwealth Court ruled that the office had erred.

Bagwell had asked for e-mails, letters, reports, and other materials received in 2012 by then-Education Secretary Ronald J. Tomalis in his capacity as an ex-officio member of Penn State's board of trustees.

The open-records office said it did not have jurisdiction because the information did not qualify as records as defined under the state Right-to-Know Law, and Penn State was not covered under the law.

Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and Lincoln University are defined as state-related institutions, which are obligated under the open-records law to provide only limited financial information.

The court disagreed with the office's interpretation. It reversed the decision and sent the case back to the open-records office for review.

"This really gives people at least some kind of window into the operations of these boards, which are allowed to operate in virtual secrecy," Bagwell said Friday.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, agreed and hailed the court's decision.

"This is certainly a victory for public access," Melewsky said.

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