By Ellen Wulfhorst
(Reuters) - Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said on Wednesday he is seeking to have the costly sanctions levied by the NCAA against Penn State University over the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal thrown out, saying the punishment threatens to cause devastating damage to the state's residents and economy.
The sanctions, which included an unprecedented $60 million fine, are "overreaching and unlawful," he said at a news conference in State College where the university is located.
"I cannot and will not stand by and let it happen without a fight," said the Republican governor, who was accused of dragging his feet on the Penn State scandal when he was state Attorney General.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg to throw out all Sandusky-related sanctions that the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of U.S. collegiate sports, filed against Penn State.
At least one legal expert said the case is weak.
The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million in July and voided its football victories for the past 14 seasons in a dramatic rebuke for the school's failure to stop the assistant coach's sexual abuse of children.
"The NCAA, and the competing colleges and universities represented on its governing boards, cynically and hypocritically exploited the tragedy of the Sandusky Offenses as a 'blank check' to impose crippling and unprecedented sanctions on an already weakened competitor," the lawsuit said.
Corbett said the NCAA overstepped its bounds and said the case was "a criminal matter, not a violation of NCAA rules."
The scandal was revealed by a grand jury Corbett convened in 2009 when he was Pennsylvania's attorney general.
State Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, said during her campaign last year that by convening the grand jury, Corbett failed to protect children by delaying prosecution for more than two years. She has vowed to probe his handling of the case. Corbett has said he would welcome such an investigation.
In a statement, Kane said she had not been consulted on the filing of the lawsuit and would reserve comment.
Pennsylvania voters also have expressed dissatisfaction with Corbett's handling of the case. Nearly two thirds of registered voters said he did a fair or poor job, according to a Franklin & Marshall College survey in September.
Sandusky, Penn State's former defensive coordinator, was convicted in June of 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, some in the football team's showers. He is serving a prison term of 30 years to 60 years.
The scandal sparked a national discussion of child sex abuse, embarrassed the university and implicated top officials in a cover-up, including the late Joe Paterno, the legendary football head coach.
The NCAA said it was disappointed by Corbett's move.
"Not only does this forthcoming lawsuit appear to be without merit, it is an affront to all of the victims in this tragedy - lives that were destroyed by the criminal actions of Jerry Sandusky," NCAA General Counsel Donald Remy said in a statement.
Pennsylvania residents have also been unhappy with the NCAA sanctions. The Franklin & Marshall poll showed more than half the respondents believed they were unfair.
Although Corbett might be seen as pursuing the lawsuit to further his own political ends, "this decision will be popular among Pennsylvanians," said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall and director of the poll.
At Wednesday's press conference Corbett rejected any political motivation for the lawsuit.
Max Kennerly, a Philadelphia-based attorney who has followed the case closely, questioned the chances of the case succeeding. It was unclear if the governor has the legal authority to file such a lawsuit he said, adding courts have generally sided with the NCAA on issues of sanctions.
"It's not a frivolous lawsuit, there are real arguments to make, but, boy is it weak," he said.
James Schultz, general counsel for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who will be handling the case, said the governor has legal standing to sue, because he is acting on behalf of residents and businesses "collaterally damaged" by the NCAA sanctions.
The sanctions harm those who depend on revenue from the Penn State football program and negatively impact the state's tax revenue base.
Also, the lawsuit said: "The stigma attached will diminish recruitment of students and student athletes, as well as the value of a Penn State education, for decades."
In State College, Pennsylvania where the university has its campus, Kathy Punt, manager of a motel used by football fans, said her business dropped 30 to 40 percent this past fall as fewer people attended the games.
"We didn't get the Penn State fans who usually come in," she said.
The university recently made the first payment of $12 million of the sanctions toward a national fund to support the victims of child abuse. Other sanctions included a ban on its football team from appearing in bowl games for four years.
According to the governor's office, Penn State football was the second-most profitable, collegiate athletic program in the United States in 2010-11 when it brought in $50 million, generating more than $5 million in tax revenue.
Penn State released a statement saying it was not party to the lawsuit and reiterated its commitment to comply with the NCAA sanctions.
The governor was asked about the report into the Penn State scandal produced by former FBI director Louis Freeh that was the basis of the NCAA sanctions. The report was scathingly critical of the university and said Penn State leaders covered up Sandusky's sexual abuse of children for years.
"The Freeh report is an incomplete report," Corbett said.
The family of Joe Paterno, who was fired by Penn State trustees who said he failed to do enough when he was alerted to suspicions about Sandusky, said: "The fact that Governor Corbett now realizes, as do many others, that there was an inexcusable rush to judgment is encouraging."
Paterno died a year ago of lung cancer.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel, Daniel Trotta, Dan Burns and Peter Rudegeair in New York and Dave Warner in Philadelphia, Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Kenneth Barry, Claudia Parsons and Leslie Gevirtz)
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