HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett knew Penn State was going to be facing the worst crisis in its history, but his inability to warn other school trustees about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case before the former assistant coach's arrest has critics questioning which role should have been more important: school leader or a former prosecutor.
Corbett's unique dual role — Penn State trustee and the state's former attorney general — came into focus once again with last week's release of an investigative report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. It criticized an out-of-touch board for its lax oversight of the university, and for failing to probe deeply enough when it learned of the grand jury probe six months before Sandusky's arrest.
"His fiduciary responsibility as a board member to put the university first was almost certainly compromised by both his own personal involvement and his role as governor who must put the interests of the state first," said Barbara Doran, a Penn State graduate who narrowly lost election to the board this year.
Corbett couldn't tell his colleagues even if he wanted to. As the former state attorney general whose office had spent the past two years building a case against Sandusky, he was bound by a legal straitjacket — the state law that cloaks grand juries in secrecy.
"I was not in the position to tell them anything while this was going on," he said Thursday following an unrelated news conference.
More than anyone else, Corbett was in a position to prepare the board for a scandal that has seriously tarnished Penn State's reputation. But Jules Epstein, a professor at Widener University School of Law in Delaware, said Pennsylvania law "absolutely prohibited Mr. Corbett from disclosing this information to the Board of Trustees."
As attorney general, "Mr. Corbett's job was to investigate crimes, get them investigated well, and not to blow an investigation by telling anyone else prematurely," Epstein said.
A trustee would normally have an obligation to share potentially damaging information with fellow board members or the school's administration, said Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
"I don't think it is healthy for a board member to sit on critical information that can affect institutional risk," said Legon, speaking generally and not about Penn State.
As a full voting member of the board, Corbett has all the same rights and responsibilities as any other trustee, including a responsibility to "support the university's mission" and "act ... at all times in the best interests of the university," according to the board's governing documents.
Corbett's spokesman Kevin Harley contended it was "neither his duty nor his obligation" to alert the trustees about the Sandusky investigation. Historically, governors do not enmesh themselves in board issues.
The governor himself, though, has seemed to suggest he could have taken a more active role.
At the board's May 2011 regular meeting, Penn State lawyer Cynthia Baldwin informed trustees about the grand jury investigation and revealed that Paterno, Penn State President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz had testified.
But she also said that Penn State did not "appear to be a focus of the investigation," and trustees complained that Baldwin and Spanier minimized the impact it would have on the school, according to the Freeh report.
Corbett missed the May meeting. But he told Freeh's investigators that, had he attended, "he would have asked more questions or prompted other trustees to ask further questions," the report said.
Corbett did participate in the board's Nov. 9 decision to oust Spanier and Paterno, but his precise role remains unclear.
Some of the trustees, and Corbett himself, said he played no greater role in the debate than any other trustee, while other board members say the governor was a vocal participant, the report said.
"Some trustees recall Corbett saying something right before the vote on Paterno along the lines of 'I hope you'll remember the children,'" the report said.
Trustees meeting behind closed doors in Scranton last week expressed no anger at Corbett's neglect to prepare them for the scandal, said a trustee, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the board discussions were considered private.
The trustee said there was far more consternation about the failure of three board members, including former board chairman Steve Garban, to alert the full 32-member board when they learned in late October that Sandusky, as well as Curley and Schultz, were about to be arrested.
Corbett has aggressively defended his handling of the Sandusky investigation against criticism that, as attorney general, he initially assigned too few investigators to the case and allowed Sandusky to walk free for more than two years before his arrest.
Last week, he exploded at a reporter who asked again about the pace of the investigation.
"Why are you all obsessed with that? It's been answered. It has been answered over and over and over," he said, rapping the podium.
Corbett kept his composure Thursday as he fielded more questions about Penn State and acknowledged he has read only two-thirds of the week-old Freeh report.
He said was disappointed by the university's "incomplete" response to subpoenas issued by prosecutors early in their investigation. He cited court papers that say e-mails contradicting the grand jury testimony of Schultz, Curley and "others" were only recently turned over even though they were subpoenaed long ago.
AP Newsman Peter Jackson in Harrisburg contributed to this story.