Sanctimonious Hypocrites Can’t Diminish the Warmth for Joe Paterno

by WALTER BRASCH

 

Gov. Tom Corbett (R-Pa.) praised Joe Paterno and ordered flags on all state buildings to fly at half-staff for four days.

That would be the same Tom Corbett who had said he was “personally disappointed” in Joe Paterno for not doing more to alert authorities in the Jerry Sandusky case, while acknowledging that Paterno did nothing illegal and followed university rules for conduct.

That would be the same Tom Corbett who, as attorney general, assigned only one investigator to the case in 2009, while devoting almost innumerable personnel and financial resources to prosecute high-profile cases that could help lead him to the governor’s office.

That would be the same Tom Corbett who had the authority to order the arrest of Jerry Sandusky as soon as the claims were made, but who allowed the investigation to drag two years.

That would be the same Tom Corbett who stepped up the investigation only in the third year, after he was elected governor.

That would be the same Tom Corbett who accepted about $200,000 in campaign donations from trustees of Sandusky’s Second Mile foundation and then danced around questions of why, as governor, he authorized a $3 million grant to the Second Mile.

That would be the same Tom Corbett who as an ex-officio member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, with the power to increase or decrease state appropriations to the university, big-footed his presence to demand that the Trustees do something to Joe Paterno.

Now, let’s look at the Board of Trustees. On Jan. 22, the day that Joe Paterno died from lung cancer, the Board issued a honey-dripped PR-laden written commemoration.

That, of course, would be the same Board that, influenced by the harpies of the media and a horde of the public who knew everything about everything, except people and football, had wanted to terminate Joe Paterno’s contract after his teams had losing seasons in 2003 and 2004. He was too old, they said. He was getting senile, they claimed. His coaching strategy was too conservative, they cried with the shrill cry of a wounded hyena. But, an 11-1 season in 2005 quieted their panic. And so they stewed, knowing that a football coach, educator, philanthropist, and humanitarian had a greater reputation than all of them combined.

That would be the same Board that violated every expectation of due process, listened to the other sanctimonious hypocrites who were quick to condemn someone without knowing the facts, and by a cowardly and impersonal phone call violated four levels of the chain of command and fired Joe Paterno hours after he had announced his retirement. It was their pathetic way to make people believe they, not the most recognizable person in Penn State history, were in control. The reality, of course, is they botched the firing in a feeble attempt to protect themselves, not Penn State and, certainly, not the rights of a tenured full professor, who had given 61 years of service to the university.

That, of course, would be the same Board that should have known for at least six months, and probably longer, of a grand jury investigation into Jerry Sandusky’s conduct, but apparently had no crisis management plan to deal with what would become the greatest scandal in its 156-year history.

That, of course, would be the same Board that had operated in a culture of secrecy that regularly violated the state’s Sunshine law and enjoyed its status as receiving state tax moneys while not having to be under the glare of the public right-to-know law.

That, of course, would be the same board that includes the CEOs of U.S. Steel, Merck, and a major division of the Bank of New York Mellon; and an assortment of senior executives from insurance, investment, and education. Even a retired assistant managing editor of The New York Times is on the Board. And, yet, this Gang of 32, which should have known better, bumbled, stumbled, and proved that malfeasance and incompetence is what it should be best known for. For the most part, they acted like undergraduates struggling to earn a grade of “C” in a course in human relations, having already decided they didn’t need the course in business communications.

Now, let’s turn to the new president. The Board forced the resignation of a respected 17-year president for not doing enough to investigate the Sandusky allegations. By most accounts, the new president, formerly the provost and executive vice-president, is a decent person with a good academic reputation. But, is it credible that if the No. 1 person should have known more and done more, how could the No. 2 person be ignorant of the allegations. Nevertheless, the Board sent the newly-minted president out on nothing less than a belated PR field trip to calm the rising storm against the Board for its incompetence and insensitivity in firing Joe Paterno. At three meetings with hundreds of alumni, the new president, facing alumni wrath, did little to alleviate their anger. But, he promised the university would do something—he didn’t know what—he didn’t know how or when—to honor Joe Paterno.

Of course, since the Board was so inept, secret, and hypocritical in its own actions, it had no idea what it was going to do. The Board statement the day of Joe Paterno’s death merely stated the university “plans to honor him,” and is considering “appropriate ways.”

The greatest honor will not come from the Board, the administration, or even the Legislature, many of whom sought the media spotlight to pander to certain voters by condemning the coach. At the statue by Beaver Stadium, thousands of students, staff, faculty, and community residents are coming to pay their respects. Hundreds had met him, for he was one of the more accessible persons in the community, often walking home alone from practices and games; his phone number was in the book; his home was in a quiet residential area not a mansion on a hill reserved for the wealthy. Most of the mourners had never met him, but they all knew him.

On Tuesday, about 27,000 people from all over the United States stood in line up to three hours to walk past the body of Joe Paterno, guarded by past and present scholar-athletes. NFL super-stars and football fans, academics and those who never went to college, all were there to honor the man who was an outstanding quarterback and cornerback who earned an English literature degree from Brown University, one of the more prestigious in the country; a man who later created the “Great Experiment” to develop and promote a winning football program that would make education and citizenship more important than sports, and would make “success with honor” more than words.

Within ten minutes, mourners grabbed the first 10,000 tickets for a Thursday memorial at the Bryce Jordan Center. The center capacity for the memorial is 12,000.

Sue Paterno need not have worried when she quietly asked some mourners to keep her husband warm. When journalism turns into history, it will be written that Joe Paterno had done more than was expected, in every part of his life. The people, not the governor or the trustees who will quickly be forgotten in the cold, will keep Joe Paterno warm.  

[Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist, former tenured full professor, and author of 17 books. His current one is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution.

Outsourcing America’s Health Care

 

by WALTER BRASCH 

 

“Ola, Amigo! Pack your bags, we’re going to Mexico!” bubbled Dr. Franklin Peterson Comstock III, faux physician and money-maker.

“Yeah, I could use a decent vacation,” I replied, figuring he’d pay for both of us since he had just set the world record for the most nose jobs in a 24-hour period.

“What vacation?” he said. “I’m setting up practice.”

“And give up catering to rich people with inflated bank accounts and deflated ethics?”

“Don’t have a choice. I’m getting laid off.”

Comstock had been a rainmaker for the Megabucks Happy Health Care Medical Center for the past decade. There was only one reason I could think of why he’d be laid off. “Megabucks tired of paying your malpractice insurance?” I asked.

“Not just me,” he said. “Hospital’s laying off most of the staff, making the rest work overtime, and hiring outside contractors. They said it was hard to survive when the profit was down to only 20 or so million a year.”

“I didn’t realize it was that serious,” I said. “You planning to set up private practice to help the poor in Mexico?” I asked admiringly.

“Not a chance! Gonna get rich working for Megabucks!”

“You just said you were laid off.”

“Been laid off in the U.S.,” said Comstock while putting a frozen burrito into the microwave. “Megabucks/Mexico just hired me. There’s cheaper labor down there.”

“You crazy?” I asked. “You’re the cheaper labor.”

“Obviously you don’t know American business,” said Comstock haughtily.

“Megabucks/U.S. closes its auxiliary operations, and then contracts with Mexican companies for a fifth of the cost in the U.S. They do the work, ship it back to the U.S., and Megabucks bills Blue Cross the full rate as if it was done locally.”

“So where do you fit in?” I asked.

“Just as before. Nose jobs. Breast augmentations. Tummy tucks. All the important medical procedures. But this time, I do it in Cancun.”

“To rich Mexicans,” I said disgusted.

“To rich Americans!” said Comstock. “If they want the best care, they’ll take their private jets to Mexico and then deduct the trip as a necessary business expense.”

“And what about the impoverished and middle-class Americans?”

“If they can sneak across the border, they can also get medical care.”

“What about prescriptions?”

“Megabucks contracted with some of the best drug dealers—I mean pharmacists and chemists—in Mexico. Quality is just as good and it’ll only be four or five times production costs. Unlike the U.S. there’s no TV advertising and six-figure MBAs and lawyers that require drugs to be 30 or 40 times production costs.”

“With prices that low, how do you know there won’t be mass rushes by Americans to grab everything they can?”

“Because there’s security! Every hospital and pharmacy has armed guards with the best automatic weapons smuggled through the God-fearing 2nd Amendment patriotic Southern states.”

“Is Megabucks outsourcing all its operations?”

“Keeping the ER. After tummy tucks and butt lifts, that’s the hospital’s ‘cash cow.’”

“So, then, it’ll have to keep some services like X-Ray and the lab,” I said. “Maybe even a doctor or two.”

“Too expensive,” said Comstock. “Megabucks will hire more residents and foreign-educated doctors, and work them 18 hours a day. More work, less time to complain. Residents will do anything to get experience to pass their boards. May even hire a couple of hospitalists. You know, the ones who graduated at the bottom of their class and can’t even get work in a Free Clinic.”

“I suppose they’ll also do the lab work?” I asked.

“Do you know some of those lab techs are making as much as $30,000 a year! Made sense to lay them off, too.”

“So how will the ER know a victim’s blood chemistry, or if there’s internal injuries?”

“Technology,” said Comstock. “They scan the blood here, and send digital X-Rays to Mexico. Mexican lab technicians—you know, the ones that don’t know about unions and will work for only a few bucks a day—will analyze everything, then text the results back to the U.S.”

“This sounds like it’s not only a way to maximize profits, but also a way to avoid dealing with the President’s health care reform program.”

“Obamacare!” spit out Comstock. “Nothing but socialized medicine.”

“Most countries have forms of socialized medicine,” I countered, “and they not only have good health care but affordable prices to their citizens.”

Comstock put his hands to his ears and began chanting, “We’re Number 1, We’re Number 1.”

“Number 37,” I corrected him. “The World Health Organization ranked the U.S. just below Costa Rico.”

“They’re all Commies,” replied Comstock. “Besides, that study is a decade old.”

“Last year, the independent Commonwealth Fund compared the nations of the United Kingdom against the U.S., and the U.S. ranked seventh of the seven.”

“Yeah, like Americans will go to Canada? It’s covered by snow and run by a queen who can’t even speak English.”

“You and Megabucks are crazy!”

“Possibly,” said Comstock, “but outsourcing is the American way. By the way, do you put ketchup or mustard on a burrito?”

[Dr. Walter Brasch isn’t licensed to practice medicine, but he goes to some excellent physicians who are—and they’re just as frustrated with the costs, insurance companies and myriad forms as anyone else. His current book is the critically-acclaimed mystery novel, Before the First Snow]

 

 

Miss America: Auditioning for Center Stage

 

 

by WALTER BRASCH     

      

Tucked between the New Hampshire primary and Ground Hog Day, and directly competing against an NFL playoff game, is Saturday night’s annual Miss America pageant.

Although the headquarters is still near Atlantic City, where it originated in 1921, the pageant—don’t call it a beauty contest—has been a part of the Las Vegas entertainment scene for eight years. Apparently, the Las Vegas motto of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” wrapped itself around the pageant as well, with TV viewership dropping lower almost every year.

ABC-TV divorced Miss America in 2004, claiming irreconcilable differences. Viewership had fallen from a peak of 26.7 million in 1991 to an all-time low of 9.8 million, barely enough to keep a prime-time show on the air. The pageant’s CEO, trying to preserve what dignity was left, stated “We needed to find a better partner, one that better understands our values.”

Apparently better understanding Miss America’s values was Country Music Television (CMT). However, that marriage didn’t last, and Miss America then hooked up with the The Learning Channel (TLC). By 2007, only 2.4 million viewers tuned in to watch who would be the next beauty queen to want world peace, save the whales, and “do her country proud.”

Treating its demotion to the minor leagues as a chance for rehabilitation, the pageant made a few cosmetic changes, began playing with new ways of scoring, including viewer participation, and slowly brought its ratings back to about 4.5 million in 2010.

That’s when ABC-TV and Miss America, after a six-year divorce, fell in love again. Apparently, CMT and TLC “values” (and money) weren’t as good as a major network’s. Promising eternal faithfulness—as long as the ratings increased—the two lovebirds were seen by about 7.8 million.

Now, it may seem that only TV executives and advertisers should care about ratings, viewer demographics, and selling fluff. But the contestants are well-trained actors in the made-for-TV show, complete with celebrity judges, most of whom are there solely because they are—well—celebrities.

About one-third of all contestants say they want to go into communications. As in almost every pageant for the past four decades, several want to go into television. Miss Delaware and Miss Nevada both want to be talk show hosts. Miss Louisiana wants to anchor the “Today” show; to get to that lofty goal, she plans to first get a master’s in health communication. None of the contestants wanting to go into journalism have expressed any interest in first covering city council meetings, the courts, police, or Little League games. They plan to take their beauty and pageant poise, make up their hair and face, and stand in front of a camera to emphasize the reality that broadcast journalism has diminished to the point of style over substance.

Miss New York wants to be the editor of a fashion magazine. Miss Idaho wants to write for a health and fitness magazine. Miss Hawaii wants to be a film director; to do that, she plans to first get an MBA. There is no evidence she plans first to be an actor, set designer, writer, cinematographer, or in any of several dozen crafts.

Miss Utah says she wants to be an interpersonal communications presenter (whatever that is) and also a college dance team coach. Miss New Hampshire, who probably dressed Barbie dolls in corporate suits, says she wants to “own a large and prestigious advertising firm.” It’s doubtful she’ll want to modify the gibberish of the organization that, with all seriousness, says it “provides young women with a vehicle to further their personal and professional goals and instills a spirit of community service through a variety of unique nationwide community-based programs.”

A few contestants say they want to be “event planners,” as if there already aren’t enough people wasting their own lives by planning the lives of others.

Not planning to go into communications is Miss California who is earning a degree in something called “social enterprise.” That could be anything from learning how to use Facebook to mixing the drinks at upscale parties. Miss West Virginia says she wants to go into the military, and then become secretary of state. Perhaps one day she might work for the 2011 Miss America, whose goal is to become president.

Several contestants plan to get MBAs, but almost everyone wants to use that degree to go into—prepare yourself!—a non-profit social service agency.  It sounds good, and maybe they all mean it. But, dangle a six-figure salary, stock options, extensive perks, and a “golden parachute,” and most of them will run over the Red Cross so fast it’ll need blood transfusions.

Mixed into the career goals are some contestants who plan to be physicians, pharmacists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and others in the caring professions.  

Miss America doesn’t have to worry about a job or college for a year. Along with a paid chaperone, she will tour the country to sign autographs and give inspirational speeches about whatever her platform is—and, of course, to promote the Miss America Organization.

From the “toddlers and tiaras” stage to the stage at the Planet Hollywood Casino, beauty contestants are told how to look, act, and talk, even what to say or not say. The Miss America Organization—which makes the Mafia look like a second rate fraternity—doesn’t tell contestants they must attend college. But, every one of the state winners plans to be a college graduate.

There is a definite bias against those who don’t think attending college is important at this stage of their lives. And so, we don’t see talented actors, singers, dancers, and musicians who are bypassing college to attend specialized non-degree-granting schools and enter their professions. We don’t see contestants who, although beautiful and talented, are planning to be plumbers, electricians, or firefighter/paramedics. We don’t see contestants who want to be gardeners, floral arrangers, or chefs. And, we most assuredly don’t see women who are bypassing college to be part of major social movements.

[Walter Brasch, who attended several beauty pageants, although as a reporter and not as a contestant, is a social issues columnist and book author. His current book is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, available at www.amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com]

 

 

Making Sport of Our Future

 

by WALTER BRASCH

           

One of the fun things sports writers do is try to predict the winners and scores of upcoming games, from high school through the pros. For special “look-at-us-we’re important” bonus points, they create lists of “Top” teams and rank them, both pre-season and weekly.

Sports writers have some kind of genetic mutation that leads them to believe they know more about sports than the average schlump who spends almost $200 a year for a newspaper subscription and as much as $500 a year for all-access all-games everywhere cable coverage. However, the reality is that even the best prognosticators—sports writers love big words when they can pronounce them—have a record about as accurate as the horoscope on the comics page.

Nevertheless, the guesses and rankings by sportswriters are usually innocuous. Readers and viewers usually forget in a couple of days who says what, and go about their own lives trying to make a mediocre paycheck stretch until the end of the month.

Joining the “guess how bright I am” journalists are some reporters who cover national political races. Instead of researching and explaining candidate positions on numerous issues, and giving readers and viewers a greater understanding of how those positions could impact their own lives, these pompous scribblers have made politics another sports contest.

The national news media, secure in their perches in New York and Washington, D.C., several months ago began chirping about who will win the Iowa caucus. For the final few days, they parachuted into Iowa to let their readers and viewers think they were toughened field reporters with as difficult a job as combat correspondents in Iraq or Afghanistan. Like hungry puppies, they stayed close to the candidates, hoping for a morsel or two, digested it, passed it out of their system as wisdom, and haughtily predicted the winner would be Mitt Romney—no, wait—it’s Michele Bachman—no, we’re calling for a surprising victory by Herman Cain—stop-the-presses, Cain petered out—Newt Gingrich is definitely going to take Iowa—Rick Perry is our prediction— we predict Ron Paul might be ahead—the race is going to be tough, but based upon our superior knowledge because we’re the national news media and we’re infallible, and from projections we picked out of our butts we believe—.

The one candidate they discounted for almost all but the last week of the Iowa primary race was Rick Santorum. Not a chance, they declared. Weak campaign. Lack of funds. No charismatic razzle-dazzle. No vital signs. Dead as a 2-by-4 about to be sawed and covered by wallboard.

Santorum, of course, came within eight votes of taking the Iowa caucus. The news media then spent the next day telling us all about that campaign, much in the same way that a bubbly TV weather girl, who a week earlier predicted bright sunny skies for a week, tells us we had snow the past three days.

The national news media jetted out of Iowa faster than a gigolo leaving a plain rich girl for a plain richer one, and descended upon New Hampshire. In the granite state, they have been repeating their performance from Iowa. They have predicted who the “real” winners and losers are. They have tried to convince us they can actually talk to us common folk, so they are grabbing whoever they find to answer in less than ten seconds, “Who do you think will win?” After the New Hampshire primary concludes, Tuesday, the media will happily discard their snow coats for windbreakers and descend into South Carolina, where they will continue to treat a presidential race as little more than a sporting contest.

There’s a difference, however. Generally, whoever wins or loses a game doesn’t have much impact upon the rest of us, so we smile at the sportswriters’ attempts to predict outcomes and pretend they can analyze the impact of a reserve left tackle’s hangnail. Those who are elected to our city councils, state legislatures, Congress, and the Presidency do have an impact upon us. And we deserve a lot better than the arrogance of the news clan reporting the contests as if they were sporting events.

[Walter Brasch was a sportswriter and sports editor before becoming an award-winning public affairs/investigative reporter and columnist, who has covered several presidential campaigns. He was once a reporter for an Iowa newspaper. His current book is the critically-acclaimed social issues mystery-thriller, Before the First Snow.]

 

 

Stories We Will Still Have to Write in 2012

 

by WALTER and ROSEMARY BRASCH

 

In January 2009, with a new president about to be inaugurated, we wrote a column about the stories we preferred not having to write, but knew we would. Three years later, we are still writing about those problems; three years from now, we’ll still be writing about them.

We had wanted the U.S. Department of the Interior to stop the government-approved slaughter of wild horses and burros in the southwest, but were disappointed that the cattle industry used its money and influence to shelter politicians from Americans who asked for compassion and understanding of  breeds that roamed freely long before the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.”

We wanted to see the federal government protect wolves, foxes, and coyotes, none of whom attack humans, have no food or commercial value, but are major players in environmental balance. But, we knew that the hunting industry would prevail since they see these canines only as competition.

We wanted to see the Pennsylvania legislature stand up for what is right and courageously end the cruelty of pigeon shoots. But, a pack of cowards left Pennsylvania as the only state where pigeon shoots, with their illegal gambling, are actively held.

For what seems to be decades, we have written against racism and bigotry. But many politicians still believe that gays deserve few, if any, rights; that all Muslims are enemy terrorists; and publicly lie that Voter ID is a way to protect the integrity of the electoral process, while knowing it would disenfranchise thousands of poor and minority citizens.

We will continue to write about the destruction of the environment and of ways people are trying to save it. Environmental concern is greater than a decade ago, but so is the ignorant prattling of those who believe global warming is a hoax, and mistakenly believe that the benefits of natural gas fracking, with well-paying jobs in a depressed economy, far outweigh the environmental, health, and safety problems they cause.

We will continue to write against government corruption, bailouts, tax advantages for the rich and their corporations, governmental waste, and corporate greed. They will continue to exist because millionaire legislators will continue to protect those who contribute to political campaigns. Nevertheless, we will continue to speak out against politicians who have sacrificed the lower- and middle-classes in order to protect the one percent.

We will continue to write about the effects of laying off long-time employees and of outsourcing jobs to “maximize profits.” Until Americans realize that “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” we’ll continue to explain why exploitation knows no geographical boundaries.

The working class successfully launched major counter-attacks against seemingly-entrenched anti-labor politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states. But these battles will be as long and as bitter as the politicians who deny the rights of workers. We will continue to speak out for worker rights, better working conditions, and benefits at least equal to their managers. We don’t expect anything to change in 2012, but we are still hopeful that a minority of business owners who already respect the worker will influence the rest.

There are still those who believe education is best served by programs manacled by teaching-to-the-test mentality, and are more than willing to sacrifice quality for numbers. We will continue to write about problems in the nation’s educational system, especially the failure to encourage intellectual curiosity and respect for the tenets of academic integrity.

Against great opposition, the President and Congress passed sweeping health care reform. But, certain members of Congress, all of whom have better health care than most Americans, have proclaimed they will dismantle the program they derisively call “Obamacare.”

During this new year, we will still be writing about the unemployed, the homeless, those without adequate health coverage—and against the political lunatics who continue to deny Americans the basics of human life, essentials that most civilized countries already give their citizens.

We had written forcefully against the previous president and vice-president when they strapped on their six-shooters and sent the nation into war in a country that posed no threat to us, while failing to adequately attack a country that housed the core of the al-Qaeda movement. We wrote about the Administration’s failure to provide adequate protection for the soldiers they sent into war or adequate and sustained mental and medical care when they returned home. The War in Iraq is now over, but the war in Afghanistan continues. The reminder of these wars will last as long as there are hospitals and cemeteries.

We had written dozens of stories against the Bush–Cheney Administration’s belief in the use of torture and why it thought it was necessary to shred parts of the Constitution. We had hoped that a new president, a professor of Constitutional law, would stop the attack upon our freedoms and rights. But the PATRIOT Act was extended, and new legislation was enacted that reduces the rights and freedoms of all citizens. At all levels of government, Constitutional violations still exist, and a new year won’t change our determination to bring to light these violations wherever and whenever they occur.

The hope we and this nation had for change we could believe in, and which we still hope will not die, has been minced by the reality of petty politics, with the “Party of No” and its raucous Teabagger mutation blocking social change for America’s improvement. We can hope that the man we elected will realize that compromise works only when the opposition isn’t entrenched in a never-ending priority not of improving the country, but of keeping him from a second term. Perhaps now, three years after his inauguration, President Obama will disregard the disloyal opposition and unleash the fire and truth we saw in the year before his election, and will speak out even more forcefully for the principles we believed when we, as a nation, gave him the largest vote total of any president in history.

We really want to be able to write columns about Americans who take care of each other, about leaders who concentrate upon fixing the social problems. But we know that’s only an ethereal ideal.  So, we’ll just have to hope that the waters of social justice wear down, however slowly, the jagged rocks of haughty resistance.

 [Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues columnist, former newspaper investigative reporter and editor, and journalism professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Rosemary Brasch is a former secretary, Red Cross national disaster family services specialist, labor activist, and university instructor of labor studies.]

 

 

 

One Jew’s Christmas

 

 

by Walter Brasch

 

I am a Jew.

I don’t mind receiving Christmas cards or being wished a “Merry Christmas” from friends, clerks, or even in junk mail trying to sell me something no sane person should ever buy. My wife and I even send Christmas cards, with messages of peace and joy, to our friends who are Christians or who we don’t know their religion.

I like Christmas music and Christmas carolers, even if some have voices that crack now and then, perhaps from the cold.

At home, from as early as I could remember, my family bought and decorated a Christmas tree, and gave gifts to each other and our friends. Usually we put a Star of David on the tree, undoubtedly an act of heresy for many Jews and Christians. We learned about Christmas—and about Chanukah, the “feast of lights,” an eight day celebration of joy and remembrance of the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem at a time when it seemed as if a miracle had saved the Jews from darkness during the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE.

This year, my wife and I have a two-foot tall cypress tree, decorated with angels and small LED lights, a gift from a devout Christian. We weren’t offended by the gift; we accepted it and displayed it on a table in our dining room in the spirit of friendship. In Spring, we’ll plant the tree in our backyard and hope it grows strong and tall, giving us shade and oxygen, perhaps serving as a sanctuary for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife.

What I do mind is the pomposity of some of the religious right who deliberately accost me, often with an arrogant sneer on their lips, to order me to accept their “well wishes” of  a “Merry Christmas.” Their implication is “Merry Christmas—or else!” It’s their way of saying their religion is the one correct religion, that all others are wrong.

 The problem is that although I am secure in my beliefs and try to understand and tolerate other beliefs, the extreme right is neither secure nor does it tolerate difference or dissent.

Right wing commentators at Fox News are in their final week of what has become a holiday tradition of claiming there is a “War on Christmas.” The lies and distortions told by these Shepherds of Deceit, and parroted by their unchallenging flock of followers, proves that at least in this manufactured war, truth is the first victim.

 The Far-Right-But-Usually-Wrong claim that godless liberals are out to destroy Christmas, and point to numerous examples, giving some facts but never the truth.  

They are furious that many stores wish their customers a “Happy Holiday” and not a “Merry Christmas,” unable to understand that sensitivity to all persons’ religions isn’t some kind of heresy. The ultra-right American Family Association even posts lists of stores that are open on Christmas, have their clerks wish customers a “Happy Holiday,” and don’t celebrate Christmas the way they believe it should be celebrated. (Of course, the AFA doesn’t attack its close ally, the NRA, which on its website wishes everyone “Happy Holidays.”)

Because of their own ignorance, they have no concept of why public schools may teach about Christmas or even have students sing carols but can’t put manger scenes on the front lawn. Nevertheless, the Extremists of Ignorance and Intolerance parade the Constitution as their own personal shield, without having read the document and its analyses, commentaries, and judicial opinions that define it, and can’t understand there is a strict separation of church and state. The Founding Fathers, especially Franklin and Jefferson, were clear about that. They were also clear that this is a nation where a majority of its people professes to be Christians, but it is not a “Christian nation.” There is a distinct difference.

The ultra-right—some of whom stanchly believe Barack Obama is not only a Muslim but wasn’t even born in the U.S—follow the guiding star of Fox to wrongly claim that the President Obama hates Christianity so much that he won’t even put up a Christmas tree but calls it a “holiday tree.” Perhaps they were too busy imbibing the bigotry in their mugs to know that the President and his family helped light the National Christmas Tree near the White House, wished Americans a “Merry Christmas,” and even told a bit about what Christians believe is a divine birth.

When confronted by facts, these fundamentalists point out that the Puritans, the ones who fled England for religious freedom, demanded adherence to a strict code of Protestant principles—and if it was good enough for the first American “citizens,” it’s good enough for the rest of us. What they never learned, obviously, is that the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations, declaring them to be pagan festivals.

If the Fox pundits, leading their sheep into the abyss of ignorance in a counter-attack in a war that doesn’t exist, would take a few moments to think before blathering inanities, they might realize that the man they worship was called “the Prince of Peace” not the “General of War.”

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist and multimedia producer. His latest book is the mystery novel, Before the First Snow.]

           

 

 

Pennsylvania Legislators Shoot Down Pigeons—Again

 

by WALTER BRASCH 

 

If the first year gross anatomy class at the Penn State Hershey medical school needs spare body parts to study, they can visit the cloak room of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. That’s where most of the legislators left their spines.

The House voted 124–69, Dec. 13, to send an animal welfare bill back to committee, in this case the Gaming Oversight Committee. The bill, SB 71, would have banned simulcasting of greyhound races from other states. Pennsylvania had banned greyhound racing in 2004. Among several of the current bill’s amendments were ones that would also have banned the sale of cat and dog meat, increased penalties for releasing exotic animals, and stopped the cruelty of live pigeon shoots.

It’s the pigeon shoot amendment, sponsored by Rep. John Maher (R-Allegheny), that caused legislators to hide beneath their desks, apparently in fear of the poop from the NRA, which lobbied extensively against ending pigeon shoots. The unrelenting NRA message irrationally claimed that banning pigeon shoots is the first step to banning guns. The NRA even called the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) a radical animal rights group. The House action leaves Pennsylvania as the only state where pretend hunters, most of them from New Jersey and surrounding states where pigeon shoots are illegal, to come to Pennsylvania and kill caged birds launched in front of spectators and the shooters.

Most pigeon shoots are held in Berks County in southeastern Pennsylvania, with one in the nearby suburban Philadelphia area. Scared and undernourished birds are placed into small cages, and then released about 20 yards in front of people with 12-gauge shotguns. Most birds, as many as 5,000 at an all-day shoot, are hit standing on their cages, on the ground, or flying erratically just a few feet from the people who pretend to be sportsmen. Even standing only feet from their kill, the shooters aren’t as good as they think they are. About 70 percent of all birds are wounded, according to Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president, who for about 25 years has been documenting and leading the effort to pass legislation to finally end pigeon shoots in the state.

 Birds that fall outside the shooting club’s property are left to die long and horrible deaths. If the birds are wounded on the killing fields, trapper boys and girls, most in their early teens, some of them younger, grab the birds, wring their necks, stomp on their bodies, or throw them live into barrels to suffocate. There is no food or commercial value of a pigeon killed at one of the shoots.

The lure of pigeon shoots, in addition to what the participants must think is a wanton sense of fulfillment, is gambling, illegal under Pennsylvania law but not enforced by the Pennsylvania State Police.

The International Olympic Committee banned the so-called sport after the 1900 Olympics because of its cruelty to animals. Most hunters, as well as the Pennsylvania Game Commission, say that pigeon shoots aren’t “fair chase hunting.” Almost every daily newspaper in the state and dozens of organizations, from the Council of Churches to the Pennsylvania Bar Association, oppose this form of animal cruelty.

On the floor of the House, Rep. Rosita C. Youngblood (D-Philadelphia), usually a supporter of animal rights issues, spoke out against voting on the bill, and asked other Democrats to go along with her. Youngblood is minority chair of the Gaming Oversight committee.

Youngblood’s chief of staff, Bill Thomas, emphasizes that Youngblood’s only concern was to protect the integrity of the legislative process. Although some members truly believed they voted to recommit the bill for procedural reasons, most members were just simply afraid to vote on the bill. Voting to recommit the bill were 52 Democrats, many of them opposed to pigeon shoots; 35 voted to keep it on the floor for debate. Among Republicans, the vote was 72–34 to send the bill to committee.

 

The Arguments

Germaneness: The Republican leadership had determined that all amendments to bills  in the current legislative session must be germane to the bill. “You can’t hijack a bill,” many in the House, including key Democrats, claimed as the major reason they voted against SB71.

However, the Republicans, with a majority in the House and able to block any bill in committee that didn’t meet their strict political agenda, raised “germaneness” to a level never before seen in the House. For decades, Democrats and Republicans attached completely unrelated amendments to bills. Even during this session, the Republicans, in violation of their own “rules,” attached amendments to allow school vouchers onto several bills, many that had nothing to do with education. But, the Greyhound racing bill was considered under both gambling and animal cruelty concerns. Thus, the amendment to ban pigeon shoots could also be considered to be an animal cruelty amendment and not subject to the Judiciary Committee, where it was likely to die.

 

Separate bill. Several legislators believed the attempt to stop pigeon shoots should have been its own bill, not tacked onto another bill.

However, only twice have bills about pigeon shoots come to the floor of the House. Most proposed legislation had been buried in committees or blocked by House leadership, both Democrat and Republican, most of whom received support and funding from the NRA, gun owner groups, and their political action committees (PACs). In 1989, the Pennsylvania House had defeated a bill to ban pigeon shoots, 66–126. By 1994, three years after the first large scale protest, the House voted 99–93 in favor of an amendment to ban pigeon shoots, but fell short of the 102 votes needed for passage.

 

The bill would duplicate or repeal a recently-signed law:

 Rep. Curt Schroeder (R-Chester Co.), chair of the Gaming Oversight committee, sponsored the House version of the Senate’s bill. If it was truly an unnecessary bill, he or the leadership could have previously sent it to committee for reworking or killed it. According to sources close to the leadership, despite his concern for animal welfare, Schroeder was not pleased about the amendments tacked onto his bill.

 

Short time to accomplish much: Several Democrats believed that by spending extraordinary time on the bill, necessary legislation would not be brought to the floor and the Republicans could then blame the Democrats for blocking key legislation.

However, both parties already knew how they would vote for redistricting (the Republicans had gerrymandered the state to protect certain districts), school vouchers, and other proposed legislation.  Further, the Republican leadership could have blocked putting the Greyhound bill into the agenda or placed it at the end of other bills. Even on the floor of the House, the leadership could have shut down debate at any time. Thus, the Democrats’ argument about “only four days left” is blunted by the Republicans’ own actions. During 2011, the House met only 54 days when the vote on SB 71 was taken. If the House was so concerned about having only four days left in the year to discuss and vote upon critical issues, it could have added days to the work week or increased hours while in session. Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), to his credit, wanted a vote, although he personally opposed the pigeon shoot amendment. “Let’s put this issue to rest,” he told the members. Taking the time to debate the bill, says Bill Thomas, “wasted taxpayer money and time.” However, “the amount of time spent avoiding the bill,” counters Prescott, “wastes far more time and resources than voting on it.”

 

Nevertheless, no matter what the arguments, sending the bill to committee was a good way to avoid having to deal with a highly controversial issue. It allowed many legislators to pretend to their constituents that they still believe in animal welfare, while avoiding getting blow-back from the NRA or its supporters. Conversely, it allowed many of those who wanted to keep pigeon shoots to avoid a debate and subsequent vote, allowing continued support from pro-gun constituents who accept the NRA non-logic, while not offending constituents who believe in animal welfare.

Whatever their reasons, the failure of the many of the state’s representatives to stand up for their convictions probably caused legislation to ban this form of animal cruelty to be as dead during this session as the pigeons whose necks are wrung by teenagers who finish the kill by people who think they’re sportsmen but are little more than juveniles disguised in the bodies of adults.

            [Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated social issues columnist, former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, whose specialties included public affairs/investigative reporting. He is professor emeritus of journalism. Dr. Brasch’s latest novel is Before the First Snow, a story of the counterculture and set in rural Pennsylvania.]

 

 

 

Labor Not Represented in Management of the 'People's Universities'

 

by Walter Brasch

 

 Although more than one million Pennsylvanians are members of labor unions, and the state has a long history of worker exploitation and union activism, neither of the two largest university systems has a labor representative on its governing board.

The only labor representative on the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education (SSHE) in its 28 year history was Julius Uehlein, who served 1988–1995 while Pennsylvania AFL–CIO president. The appointment was made by Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat.

Only two persons have ever represented labor on Penn State’s Board of Trustees. Gov. Milton Shapp, a Democrat, appointed Harry Boyer, the state AFL–CIO president, in 1973. Shortly after Boyer retired in 1988, he resigned as a trustee. Richard Trumka, a Penn State alumnus and Villanova law school graduate, now the national AFL–CIO president, served as a trustee, 1983–1995, while president of the United Mine Workers. He was first appointed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a Republican, reappointed by Gov. Casey, and not reappointed when Tom Ridge, a Republican, became governor.

The 32-member Penn State Board of Trustees is divided into five groups: ex-officio members (6), Governor appointments (6), members elected by the Alumni Association (8), Business and Industry members (6), and elected members from Agriculture (6). The Agriculture representation dates to 1862 when Penn State (at that time known as Farmer’s High School) was one of the first two land grant institutions; the land grant institutions were created to provide advanced education in agriculture and the sciences. Currently, 15 members either are or were CEOs. Among them are the CEOs of U.S. Steel and Merck. One of the ex-officio members is the Penn State president, which creates an interesting potential for a conflict-of-interest. Except for one student representative, most of the rest are lawyers or senior corporate or public agency executives. Only six members are women, only three are members of minority classes.

The lack of diversity became an issue this week when the Faculty Senate called for a more diverse board. The challenge to the Trustees was unusual because the Senate “has always been a relatively non-confrontational group,” according to Dr. Paul Clark, head of the university’s prestigious Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, who had served as a senator for 15 years. However, child molestation charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, combined with how poorly the university administration and the secrecy-clad Trustees handled the problem, exposed the university and trustees to additional scrutiny.

“Because of the number of union members in Pennsylvania, and the need to have working people’s issues and perspectives represented on the board, we always thought it made a lot of sense for that constituency [working class] to be represented on the trustees,” says Dr. Clark.

At one time, Penn State had an active labor studies advisory committee, dating back to the early 1950s when Milton Eisenhower was the university president. That committee met at least four times a year and “was well respected,” says Irwin Aronson, general counsel for the Pennsylvania AFL–CIO, and a Penn State labor studies graduate. After Dr. Graham Spanier became president in 1995, the committee quickly dissolved because “he didn’t seem to have much interest in it,” says Richard Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL–CIO president. There is no doubt, says Aronson, that “the previously warm relationship between labor and Penn State’s administration collapsed under Dr. Spanier’s administration.” Bloomingdale says he hopes Rodney Erickson, Penn State’s newly-appointed president, will see the necessity to reinstate the committee.

Penn State also has what may be the state’s premiere collection of labor history primary source documents, especially from the coal region. The letters, notes, diaries and other materials are archived in the Paterno Library.

 Penn State is a state-related private university which received $279 million in state funding for the current fiscal year; it has 94,000 students on its 24 campuses, with 44,000 of the students enrolled on its main campus. About 3,000 Penn State staff (mostly those working in maintenance, physical plant, dormitories, and the cafeteria) are members of the Teamsters. About 1,300 registered nurses, including those of the Hershey Medical Center, are members of the Service Employees International Union. However, there is no faculty union at Penn State. Part of the problem, says Dr. Clark, is that faculty in the large business and agriculture colleges, plus those in engineering and science, tend not to have strong union loyalties; those in the liberal arts tend to have more acceptance of the value of unions.

SSHE, the larger of the two systems, has 120,000 students enrolled in 14 universities. Its 20-member Board of Governors isn’t much more diverse than Penn State’s. The Board has three student representatives who are appointed by the Board after being nominated by the presidents of the 14 universities. However, because of the way the students are nominated by presidents of the individual campuses and then selected by the Board of Governors, most usually have views similar to what the administration sees as mainstream and acceptable. Membership also includes four legislators, selected from each political caucus (Democrat and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate) and the secretary of the Department of Education; the rest are appointed by the Governor, with the consent of the state senate. Gov. Tom Corbett and his designated representative, Jennifer Branstetter, a public relations executive, serve on both Penn State and SSHE boards. Most of the other members are lawyers or senior business executives. One of them, Kenneth M. Jarin, who served as chair for six years and is currently a member, is a lawyer who represents management in labor issues.

The lack of at least one representative of labor on the SSHE Board of Governors is because of “a lack of sensitivity to the labor point of view,” says Dr. Stephen Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF), which represents 6,400 faculty. Dr. Hicks, who has tried to get the Board to include a faculty member, says that when a Board has most of its members “who have run a business and made money, you get a certain viewpoint.”

Richard Bloomingdale says he’s proposed to the boards and governor persons who could effectively represent the working class, “but they were always turned down.”

Even one representative, says Bloomingdale, “would still leave the Boards with heavy pro-business orientations.”

There is no question that politics and a pro-business or anti-labor philosophy has left working class Pennsylvanians with no representation on the boards of universities that are designated as “the people’s universities.”

Unfortunately, the lack of labor representation is the case at almost every public university in America.

 

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning reporter and syndicated columnist, and the author of 17 books. His latest book is the novel, Before the First Snow, primarily set in Pennsylvania. It is a look at the counterculture between 1964 and 1991, with a social justice and pro-labor focus. Disclosure: Dr. Brasch is professor emeritus of mass communications from the SSHE system.]

 

           

Death by Healthy Doses

 

by Walter Brasch

       

They buried Bouldergrass today. The cause of death was listed as “media-induced health.”

Bouldergrass had begun his health crusade more than a decade ago when he began reading more than the sports pages of his local newspaper, subscribed to his first magazine, and decided TV news could be informative if it didn’t mention anything about wars, famines, and poverty.

Based on what he read and saw in the media, Bouldergrass moved from smog-bound Los Angeles to a rural community in scenic green Vermont, gave up alcohol and a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and was immediately hospitalized for having too much oxygen in his body.

To burn off some of that oxygen, he joined America’s “beautiful people” on the jogging paths where the media helped him believe he was sweating out the bad karma. In less than a year, the karma left his body which was now coexisting with leg cramps, fallen arches, and several compressed disks. But at least he was as healthy as all the ads told him he could be.

To make sure he didn’t get skin cancer from being in the sun too long, he slathered four pounds of No. 35 sunblock on his body every time he ran, and went to suntan parlors twice a week to get that “healthy glow” advertisers told him he needed. He stopped blocking when he learned that suntan parlors weren’t good for your health, and that the ingredients in the lotions could cause cancer. So, he wore a jogging suit that covered more skin than an Arab woman’s black chador with veil—and developed a severe case of heat exhaustion.

From ultrathin models and billions of dollars in weight-reducing advertising that told him “thin was in,” he began a series of crash diets. When he was down to 107 pounds, advertising told him he needed to “bulk up” to be a “real man.” So, he began lifting weights and playing racquetball three hours a day. Four groin pulls and seven back injuries later, he had just 6 percent body fat, and a revolving charge account with his local orthopedist.

Several years earlier, Bouldergrass had stopped eating veal as part of a protest of America’s inhumane treatment of animals destined for supermarkets. Now, in an “enlightened” age of health, he gave up all meat, not because of mankind’s cruelty to animals, but because the media revealed that vascular surgeons owned stock in meat packing companies. Besides, it was the “healthy” thing to do.

He gave up pasta when he saw a TV report about the microscopic creepy crawlers that infest most dough.

He gave up drinking soda and began drinking juice, until he read a report that said apple juice had higher than normal levels of arsenic.

He ate soup because it was healthy and so Mmm Mmm Good, until he learned that soup had more salt than Lot’s wife. When he found low-salt soup, he again had a cup a day—until last month when he gave it up because a Harvard study revealed that soup cans contained significant amounts of Bisphenol-A-, which can lead to cancer and heart disease.

For a couple of years, lured by a multi-million dollar ad campaign and innumerable articles in the supermarket tabloids, Bouldergrass ate only oat bran muffins for breakfast and a diet of beta carotenes for lunch, until he found himself spending more time in the bathroom than at work. He eliminated the muffins entirely after reading an article that told him eating oatmeal, bran, and hood ornaments from Buick Roadsters were bad for your health.

Bouldergrass gave up milk when he learned that acid rain fell onto pastures and was eaten by cows. When he learned that industrial conglomerates had dumped everything from drinking water to radioactive waste into streams and rivers, he stopped eating fish. For awhile, based upon conflicting reports in the media, he juggled low-calorie, low-fat, and low-carbohydrate diets until his body systems dropped into the low end of inertia.

At the movies, he smuggled in packets of oleo to squeeze onto plain popcorn until he was bombarded by news stories that revealed oleo was as bad as butter and that most theatrical popcorn was worse than an all-day diet of sirloin.

When he learned that coffee and chocolate were unhealthy, he gave up an addiction to getting high from caffeine and sugar, and was now forced to work 12-hour days without any stimulants other than the fear of what his children were doing while he was at work.

Unfortunately, he soon had to give up decaffeinated coffee and sugarless candy with cyclamates since both caused laboratory mice to develop an incurable yen to listen to music from the Grand Funk Railroad.

He gave up pizza when the media reported that certain “health care investigators” claimed pizza was little more than junk food. But, he began eating several slices a day to improve his health when Congress, fattened by lobbyists campaigns, last month declared frozen pizza was a vegetable. He figured it made sense, since three decades earlier the Reagan administration had declared catsup to be a vegetable, and five years ago the Department of Agriculture decided butter-coated french fries were a vegetable.

Left with a diet of fruits and vegetables, he was lean and trim. Until he accidentally stumbled across a protest by an environmental group which complained that the use of pesticides on farm crops was a greater health hazard than the bugs the pesticides were supposed to kill. Even the city’s polluted water couldn’t clean off all the pesticides. That’s also when he stopped taking showers, and merely poured a gallon of distilled water over his head every morning.

For weeks, he survived on buckets of vitamins because the magazines told him that’s what he should do. Then, after reading an article that artificial vitamins shaped like the Flintstones caused dinosaur rot, he also gave them up.

The last time I saw Bouldergrass, he was in a hospital room claiming to see visions of monster genetic tomatoes squishing their way toward him. He was mumbling something about cholesterol and high density lipoproteins. Tubes were sticking out of every opening in his emaciated body, as well as a couple of openings that hadn’t been there when he first checked in.

In one last attempt to regain his health, Bouldergrass enlisted in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move army. But the only movement he was doing was when the nurses flipped him so he wouldn’t get bed sores.

Shortly before he died, he pulled me near him, asked that I write his obit, and in a throaty whisper begged, “Make sure you tell them that thanks to what I learned from the media, I died healthy.”

[Walter Brasch, a robust figure of health, doesn’t follow anyone’s advice on what is or is not healthy. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Brasch says the book is a great Christmas or Chanukah gift, and increased sales will improve his own mental, if not physical, health.]

         

 

 

Penn State Trustees Also Violated State Law

by WALTER BRASCH

 

The Penn State Board of Trustees may have several times violated state law for its failure to publicly announce meetings and how it handled the firing of Coach Joe Paterno. However, these violations may be the least of the Board’s worries, as it scrambles to reduce fall-out from the scandal that began with revelations that an assistant football coach may be a serial child molester, and that the university may have been negligent.

The state’s Sunshine Act [65 Pa.C.S.A §701–710] requires all public bodies to publish notices at least 24 hours before their meetings. The purpose is to eliminate secret meetings. Penn State, a private university, which received $279 million from the Commonwealth for its 2011–2012 budget, is bound by the Sunshine Act.

A public notice did appear in the Centre Daily Times, State College’s hometown newspaper, three days before a regularly-scheduled board meeting, Friday Nov. 11. But, the Trustees were caught flat-footed the week before by what eventually turned into the largest scandal in its history. These are events the Trustees should have been aware of for at least two years; certainly, the Board should have known there was a problem when the Harrisburg Patriot-News broke a story in March that the Grand Jury was investigating former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

But, based upon Board incompetence, there wasn’t even a crisis management plan in place when Sandusky was arrested Nov. 5, and Athletic Director Tim Curley; and Gary Schultz, senior vice-president of finance and administration, were charged with perjury and failure to report a crime to police. The Trustees allowed Curley to take an administrative leave, and Schultz to return to retirement. Schultz, who had worked for Penn State for 40 years, had retired in 2009, but had been brought back on an interim basis in July. Both Curley’s and Schultz’s decisions were probably influenced by the Board demands.

During the two weeks, beginning Nov. 5, the Board had conference calls, executive sessions, and emergency meetings, all without public notice.

Conference calls involving a quorum without public notice aren’t allowed. At least one conference call was conducted on Saturday, Nov. 5. A meeting by telephone is just as illegal as a meeting with all persons at a table if it isn’t publically announced.

Several emergency meetings were held the next few days. The Sunshine Act allows emergency meetings. The Trustees conducted meetings Sunday, Nov. 6, Monday, Nov. 7, and Wednesday, Nov. 9. By law, an emergency meeting can be called, without public notice, only for “the purpose of dealing with a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property.” [65 Pa.C.S.A §703] Even in the wildest stretch of that definition, there was no clear and present danger. That occurred years ago when the university didn’t contact police to report the actions of a man believed to be a child molester.

Executive sessions to discuss personnel issues and some other items are allowed—if they are announced at public meetings “immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session.” [65 Pa.C.S.S. §708(b)] But, they were not. About 10 p.m., Nov. 9, following an emergency meeting, Board vice-chair John P. Surma, flanked by 21 of the 31 trustees, publicly announced it had fired Paterno and PSU president Graham Spanier.  Surma told the media the decision was unanimous, thus indicating a vote was done in secret and not under public scrutiny as required.

The Trustees also violated both Paterno’s and Spanier’s rights under law. It’s doubtful the Board members, most of them in corporate business, even care. How they handled Paterno’s firing is indicative they have little regard for employee rights and due process. Paterno had previously said he would retire at the end of the season, since he believed, “the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.” The Trustees, undoubtedly, believed firing Paterno immediately would take heat off the university. Again, it was wrong.

Although executive sessions may be conducted in private, the Sunshine Act requires that “individual employees or appointees whose rights could be adversely affected may request, in writing, that the matter or matters be discussed at an open meeting.” [65 Pa.C.S.A. §708(a)(1)] The Board, according to a report in the Easton Express-Times, had ordered Spanier to resign or be fired. He chose to resign. Paterno was not contacted by the Board prior to termination, either to request to be heard or to request an open meeting. Paterno was informed of his termination by a hand-delivered letter that demanded he place a phone call to a board member. There was no indication in that letter of what the Board’s decision was.

Violating the law could result in invalidating decisions made at those meetings, and penalties of $1,000 for each violation; until September, the penalty had been a paltry $100. But here’s a nice twist. The Trustees probably don’t care.

A district attorney must approve prosecution for Sunshine Act violations. Although the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association (PNA) receives about 1,000 inquiries each year about what may be Sunshine Act and Right-to-Know law violations, “it’s rare for criminal prosecutions of the Sunshine Act,” according to Melissa Melewsky, media law council for the PNA. Civil actions by individuals are likewise difficult to pursue because of significant costs.

Here’s another surprise. Because of heavy lobbying to the legislature, whose members are feasted at one home game a year and can also receive comp football tickets to other home football games, Penn State is not bound by the state’s Right-to-Know law. This means that innumerable records, including minutes of all meetings— both public and those that are illegal under the Sunshine Act—can still be secret.

Here’s something not so surprising, however. Penn State’s Public Affairs office punted all questions to the Board. The Board arrogantly has refused to answer both verbal and written questions. However, possibly using public funds, it did hire a PR firm to handle crisis management issues. We won’t know the cost—that’s something it doesn’t have to tell the taxpayers.

[Assisting on this story was Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Walter Brasch, as president of both the Keystone chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Pennsylvania Press Club, was active in fighting for a stronger Right-to-Know law and enforcement of the Sunshine Act. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist and retired university professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a mystery/thriller set in Pennsylvania.]

 

 

 

 

 

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