Court Forces Turnover in Paterno Salary Case
Albright, Scott, News Media and the Law
Pennsylvania high court rules that state must reveal the legendary football coach's earnings despite university objections.
When veteran newspaper reporter Jan Murphy decided to push for the release of salary-related information from Penn State University five years ago, she faced an obstacle as intimidating as any Nittany Lion offensive lineman: Joe Paterno's reputation.
A beloved figure who has coached Penn State's football team for 42 years, Paterno's old-fashioned modesty, his generosity in giving back roughly $4 million over the years to the university and his 372 wins have earned him a degree of fan loyalty that is arguably unmatched in college sports.
Such protective dedication became particularly evident when some fans perceived Murphy's attempts to obtain university financial information that included Paterno's salary as an irreverent breach of the 80-yearold coach's privacy. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 20 that the state's Right to Know Act mandated the information's disclosure, the Patriot-News [Harrisburg] reported Paterno's base salary to be $512,664 in 2007.
"Shame on you, Patriot-News," one reader, identified only as "GT," commented online after reading about Murphy's story as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education. "You should be raising this man upon your shoulders instead of the...proverbial flaeoole!"
Paterno's salary had been a closely guarded secret for decades. But after the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement Board (SERS) agreed to release Paterno and other university officials' salaries to the Patriot-News, the university sued to prevent the disclosure - and lost at every state court level.
The salaries were ultimately revealed after the state's high court found the information to be public because it was submitted voluntarily through a contractual agreement as part of the state's taxpayer-backed pension program. The court found that the salaries were integral components of the pension plan, thereby fitting into one of the state's primary definitions for what constitutes a public record: "an account, voucher or contract dealing with the receipt or disbursement of funds by an agency."
Responding to reader criticisms, both Murphy and Craig Staudenmaier, an attorney who represented the Patriot-News in the litigation, emphasized that the newspaper's intention was never to single out or embarrass Paterno. Rather, the real goal was to shed light on how taxpayer funds were generally being spent by the university, which received $349 million in state legislature-appropriated funds last year alone.
Operating in a state with a notoriously inhibitive open records law, Penn State has a reputation of being particularly secretive when it comes to disclosing financial information, Staudenmaier said. Similar information, including football coaches' salaries, is easily available at other big-time football schools such as Iowa, Oklahoma, Alabama and Florida, according to a USA Today report.
And because the head coaches' salaries at these schools are all above $3 million per year, Paterno's salary of just over $500,000 seems ironically miniscule, given the public records fuss and coach's stature as a proverbial living legend. The USA Today story noted that the average salary of the nation's 120 major college football coaches is near $1 million.
"By today's standards, [Paterno's salary is] a bargain," the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in November. "So why the big secret all these years?"
Murphy and Staudenmaier noted that SERS had readily been disclosing pension-related information about other state employees, but was seemingly applying a different standard when it came to Perm State figures.
"This case was never about Joe Paterno specifically," said Staudenmaier, who represented the Patriot-News in the lawsuit. "What the case was about was the disparity and unequal treatment under open records law. …