Penn State Alum Ryan Bagwell Fights for Open Records
Transparency has always been a buzz word at Penn State, especially during the last two years. Legions of alumni and students have urged Penn State to become more transparent and open with its budget, decision making, and communications, although there is a natural resistance from the university to that push.
Ryan Bagwell, a 2002 graduate and former Board of Trustees candidate, has taken that push one step forward into the courts. Bagwell takes habit of filing Right to Know Law requests — 26 of them, according to his website — to obtain documents relating to the business of the Board of Trustees and the university, usually specific to the Jerry Sandusky fallout. And now, he has started the “Penn State Sunshine Fund” to help pay for the legal fees required to continually battle Penn State in court.
The Right to Know Law is a tricky thing to understand, especially as it relates to Penn State. Because Penn State is only a state-related university and not a publicly funded state school, it is not subject to Right to Know requests. However, certain members of the Board of Trustees who are involved in state government — the Secretary of Education, for example — can be subject to Right to Know laws if the request meets the criteria.
Bagwell has already won several court battles with Penn State over some interesting records. For example, earlier this month he was able to obtain a series of emails between board members, including then-Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, about President Rodney Erickson and his acceptance of the NCAA consent decree.
On July 24, 2012, influential board member Ira Lubert sent an email to Erickson and others questioning the decision to sign the sanctions agreement.
“l’m very troubled about this representation in light of your explanation to us yesterday that we had no option but to sign this, no negotiation etc!” Lubert wrote. “Again this board is put in the position that we don’t know what we’re doing and that we rush to decisions under the excuse we ‘had no choice.’”
The email was part of 86 pages of records released by the governor’s office as a result of Right-to-Know Law request. Bagwell has also had some recent success in being granted emails and other documents sent from state prosecutor Frank Fina to Louis Freeh/members of his firm (although that decision is still being held up by the district attorney’s office).
Bagwell says he has spent $15,000 so far in legal fees in his open-records fight, which is where the new fundraising initiative comes in. The Sunshine Fund “is a grassroots effort dedicated to the institution of meaningful transparency at the Commonwealth’s flagship institution. It distributes funding for legal action, lobbying and other initiatives geared toward eliminating the secrecy that persists in Old Main,” according to its website.
Penn State has a lot of lawyers and a even more money. Bagwell hopes to raise $50,000 through the fund to continue to battle those forces and obtain records that could shed some light on key university decisions over the last two years.
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