Corbett’s Laconic Style Put to Test in Penn State Abuse Scandal

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett speaks at a news conference on Nov. 10. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

After authorities charged a former Pennsylvania State University football coach and two administrators in a child sex-abuse scandal, Governor Tom Corbett said nothing publicly about it until four days later.

On Nov. 9, when reporters questioned the 62-year-old Republican, who serves on the school’s board, he wouldn’t discuss the case -- because he knew so much. The investigation started in 2009 when Corbett was attorney general. He wouldn’t say whether Coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham B. Spanier should resign after the other university officials were charged. He wouldn’t talk about conversations with trustees.

“I will express my opinion first to the board before I express it to you in the media,” Corbett said.

In his first year in office, the governor deployed a laconic style as he faced a financial crisis that has Harrisburg, the capital city, on the brink of the state’s first municipal receivership, and closed a $4 billion budget gap. Nothing, however, has thrust him into the public eye like the Penn State scandal -- and nothing has so tested his powers of communication and public empathy.

On Nov. 5, prosecutors charged Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator, with sexually abusing children, and the athletic director and a vice president with lying to a grand jury. Spanier and Paterno, a football icon for decades and an object of veneration in the state, were fired days later.

‘Moral Obligation’

Corbett, who took office in January, said in an interview with Bloomberg News before the Penn State arrests that he was surprised by how much people want to know what he thinks. Now, more people than ever want to find out.

On Nov. 13, he went on “Fox News Sunday,” ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he said child-abuse reporting laws should be strengthened. He told NBC’s David Gregory that graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky having anal sex with a boy in 2002, failed to meet “a moral obligation that all of us would have” to report it beyond his superiors.

“One of the lessons that we need to learn from this, is that when people see something like this, or hear about something like this, you need to investigate right away,” Corbett said. “You need to report. We have lost the focus of what’s in the best interest of the child.”

Yet Corbett gave few details, and Chris Wallace, the Fox News host, asked Corbett why he was “so secretive” about his feelings.

No Gabber

Still, Corbett seems more comfortable in dealing with crises such as Penn State than with policy, where at times he vacillates, said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown.

“He shows a more polished image than when he does when he’s digging into policy and legislative matters,” Borick said.

Corbett’s style departs from that of his predecessor, term-limited Democrat Ed Rendell, the “gabber-in-chief” who is a professional talker for television stations, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. And it also contrasts with fellow Republican Governor Chris Christie in neighboring New Jersey, whose town-hall-meeting repartee has become an Internet sensation.

Indeed, Corbett would have been happy to remain attorney general, said Kevin Harley, the governor’s spokesman, who has known him for 16 years.

“If the job of attorney general were not term-limited, he may have never run for governor,” said Harley.

Quiet Efficiency

Corbett told Bloomberg News his prosecutorial background informs how he governs the sixth-most-populous state.

“You get more done working quietly talking to everybody,” Corbett said in the interview.

For instance, Corbett said little publicly about the situation in Harrisburg other than that he would sign the bill allowing the takeover of its finances. Even if he’s “not out on the steps of the Capitol” discussing it, Corbett said he is informed daily about developments in the city, which has filed for bankruptcy.

Questioned at the Nov. 9 event about the length of the Penn State investigation, Corbett said developing “the best possible case” takes time.

That’s the same approach he takes to policy decisions and dealing with a Legislature dominated by his own party. Corbett took three months to release his view of recommendations made in July by an advisory commission he directed to examine the natural-gas industry.

Get Moving

In September, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati told reporters that Corbett, who had convened a group to advise him on repairs to roads and bridges, needed to move: “Members of the caucus and myself want to see some action taken.”

Senator Jake Corman, the Republican appropriations chairman, on Oct. 19 proposed a bill based on the group’s recommendations.

Corbett has yet to say whether he endorses the measure.

The biggest accomplishment Corbett cites is the state’s $27 billion budget, which closed a $4 billion deficit without raising taxes and reduced overall spending by 4 percent from the previous year. Corbett has signed a pledge not to increase taxes, which House Democratic Minority Leader Frank Dermody called “government without thought.”

Clean Cut

Breaking promises undermines public confidence, said Republican Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley.

“It’s a shame that people who say what they mean and mean what they say could be characterized as being inflexible,” he said in an interview at his office. “Tom Corbett does not come quickly to the decisions he makes, but he comes to them very thoughtfully.”

Corbett’s forthrightness made him an attractive candidate for governor, said Jim Biery, a banking industry lobbyist who met Corbett at Lebanon Valley College in Annville. Biery described his fraternity brother as a “clean-cut, white-haired guy.”

“Look at Tom,” he said. “He looks honest. And he is.”

Corbett, a former federal prosecutor, said in the interview he never thought about being governor until Republicans approached him after his re-election as attorney general in 2008. He won by 52 percent of the vote in a year where Pennsylvania went for Democrat Barack Obama for president.

His poll numbers are better than those of first-term Republican Governors Rick Scott in Florida and John Kasich in Ohio, said Timothy Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. In the last Quinnipiac poll released Sept. 29, Corbett received a 50 percent approval rating.

On His Schedule

Corbett’s handling of the Penn State case may affect his standing. The governor said Nov. 13 that expects more victims to come forward, and legislators have introduced bills to strengthen child-abuse reporting laws.

An association of children’s advocacy groups yesterday reminded the governor that members in April and August pushed publicly for a task force on the issue.

“Strengthened leadership within our commonwealth is urgently needed,” said a release by the Protect Our Children Committee. “The task force we have called for is the first step.”

Corbett’s response will likely emerge on his own terms and timetable.

“I tend to let my actions speak for me rather than me speak for my actions,” Corbett said in the interview.

Tom Corbett at a Glance

Birthdate: June 17, 1949, in Philadelphia

Spouse: Susan Manbeck Corbett

Residence: Shaler Township

Family: Tom Corbett, III, 34; Katherine Corbett Gibson, 32

Religion: Catholic

Education: Shaler High School, 1967 Bachelor of arts, Lebanon Valley College, 1971 Juris doctorate, St. Mary’s University School of Law, 1975

Career: High-school history teacher, 1972-73; assistant district attorney, Allegheny County,1976-80; assistant U.S. attorney, Pittsburgh, 1980-1983; Rose Schmidt, Halsey and DiSalle, 1983-1989; U.S. attorney, Western District of Pennsylvania, 1989-1993; Thorp Reed & Armstrong, August 1993-October 1995; Pennsylvania attorney general, October 1995-January 1997(Appointed); Thorp, Reed & Armstrong, January 1997-March 1998; Waste Management, March 1998-March 2002; Thomas W. Corbett & Associates 2002-2005: Pennsylvania Attorney General 2005-2011

Military service: Pennsylvania National Guard, 1971-1984

Mascot service: Corbett was the husky for the Shaler Township High School Huskies.

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