UNIVERSITY PARK - The NCAA operated outside its bylaws and had no authority to do so when it imposed crippling sanctions last year on the Penn State football program, Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday.
Corbett filed a federal antitrust lawsuit to throw out all NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State. If successful, Penn State's $60 million fine, a wipeout of wins from 1998 to 2011, a four-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions that could hamstring the program for years would all be thwarted.
Corbett filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court. He made the announcement during a news conference with about 30 people - including business owners, Penn State student representatives and former athletes - standing behind him.
The NCAA hit the university with the sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal and a Penn State internal investigation by former FBI Director and Judge Louis Freeh.
In a statement, the NCAA said the lawsuit has no merit and called it an "affront" to Sandusky's victims.
The lawsuit alleges collateral damage of the sanctions to the state's economy.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Gov. Tom Corbett makes a point while speaking to the media about a lawsuit being filed against the NCAA as a result of the agency leveling sanctions against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
"Sandusky has been prosecuted and convicted for these heinous crimes and will spend the rest of his life in prison where he belongs. The administrators who are alleged to have covered it up have been charged criminally and will be tried before the courts," Corbett said.
"The sanctions do not punish them, they punish past and present and future students, current and former student athletes, local businesses and the citizens of Pennsylvania."
Corbett filed the lawsuit through the state Office of General Counsel and a private Philadelphia-based law firm, Cozen & O'Connor. The law firm has contributed $11,750 since July 10 to the Tom Corbett for Governor campaign committee through its political action committee, according to campaign finance records.
"I believe we have a strong case," General Counsel Jim Schultz said.
He declined to answer questions of how much the case would cost.
"Any costs of this will pale in comparison to the damages to the folks, who are being collaterally damaged as a result of this antitrust violation, will suffer," Schultz said.
Corbett is alleging an antitrust violation because the NCAA is a trade association, consisting of member universities who have a legal obligation to ensure competitiveness among its organizations. But they would gain from Penn State's demise, he said.
"The NCAA did it because they benefited from the penalties," he said.
Reporters challenged the notion that businesses have been damaged by the sanctions, citing healthy crowds for games.
State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, disagreed.
"We've got a lot of hotel owners. They would tell you a different story," he said. "Businesses were not where they were in years past."
Several business leaders said they have estimated a drop in guest counts, but none could provide actual figures for money lost.
"There's no one thing to point to and see a certain amount of dollars we've lost," said Mark Morath, Hospitality Asset Management founder. "But a comparison of year to year, guest counts are down and number of room reservations are down."
They fear if sanctions remain, their situation would worsen.
The lawsuit, on behalf of citizens, is not a Penn State lawsuit, and trustees do not have a role in the litigation.
The sanctions were accepted by Penn State President Rodney Erickson in July and subsequently ratified by the Board of Trustees, but Corbett said the NCAA forced their hand.
"Penn State had no choice given the ultimatum the NCAA gave the administration," he said.
The ultimatum was to accept the sanctions or be slapped with a four-year "death penalty" for the football program.
"They [NCAA] did not do their own investigation," he said.
Penn State is not a party to the lawsuit and has not been involved in its preparation or filing, the university said in a statement.
"The University is committed to full compliance with the Consent Decree, the Athletics Integrity Agreement and, as appropriate, the implementation of the Freeh report recommendations. We look forward to continuing to work with Sen. George Mitchell as the athletic integrity monitor for complete fulfillment of the Athletics Integrity Agreement," according to the statement.
"We recognize the important role that intercollegiate athletics provides for our student athletes and the wider University community. Penn State continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to excellence and integrity in all aspects of our University and continues to be a world-class educational institution of which our students, faculty, staff and alumni can be justifiably proud."
Corbett said he does not repudiate the Freeh report, upon which sanctions were based. He did say said the report lacked complete information.
"The Freeh report was never adopted by the trustees and it is incomplete," he said.
Freeh's conclusions condemned the entire Penn State's football program. Longtime coach Joe Paterno was fired in November 2011 as a result of the scandal and died Jan. 22.
Although the university is not involved with the lawsuit, Trustee Anthony Lubrano, who has been against the sanctions and the board's ratification of university President Rodney Erickson's decision to accept them, questioned the timing of the lawsuit.
"I'm pleased the governor has come to agree with my point of view," said Lubrano, but asked why it took so long for him to do so.
"Why now?" is a question Corbett knew reporters would ask him and attempted to answer it prior to taking their questions.
"Why now? First, I wanted to thoroughly research the issue to ensure solid legal footing. Second, I did not want to file during football season and take away from the momentum of coach Bill O'Brien and the football team," he said.
His agreement, a "delegation of authority" with Attorney General Linda Kelly circumvents the authority of Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, who will take office in two weeks.
Kane would not have the ability to deny the use of a private firm to handle the case, Schultz said. Emails sent to Kane's spokesperson were not returned late Wednesday.
"We asked [Attorney General] Linda Kelly to take a look at it," Corbett said. "They have a great deal of work on her shoulders including the actual criminal case that is ongoing."
Corbett's handling of the Sandusky case during his time as attorney general has been criticized. Kane said she intends to probe into the investigation that led to Sandusky's prosecution, which Corbett conducted for three years before becoming governor.
Paterno's family released a statement about the lawsuit.
"This matter is far from closed. The fact that Governor Corbett now realizes, as do many others, that there was an inexcusable rush to judgment is encouraging," the statement read.
Corbett plans to urge the Penn State board to follow through with one punishment dealt by the NCAA.
"If the lawsuit is successful, I suggest to the Board of Trustees to take that $60 million they made a commitment to and use it to continue the work they've already been doing such as the efforts they've made with groups including the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape," he said.