Tom Corbett’s Jerry Sandusky Problem

Did the governor slow-walk the prosecution?

Most people cite Bonusgate—the bipartisan political corruption prosecution—when asked to name Tom Corbett’s chief accomplishment as state attorney general. But not his wife. In an interview with Philadelphia magazine this summer, first lady Susan Corbett named an altogether different initiative as Corbett’s proudest and most meaningful achievement as AG: the creation of the Child Predator Unit, a specially trained unit of investigators and prosecutors, who are tasked with putting child sexual abusers in prison, and educating children and parents about child predators and their tactics.

“That would probably be the thing he thinks of as his legacy: his starting that department and the success of that department and the number of children that have probably been saved because it’s been hugely successful,” Susan Corbett told me.

Later in the interview, she mentioned the unit again, and stressed its education component. Her husband, she said, personally spent a good deal of time visiting schools, and talking directly with students about child predators.

At the time, I paid little attention to those remarks. Perhaps they further confirmed my view that Corbett, whatever his flaws, was fundamentally a decent man, and that decency explains in large part his appeal to Pennsylvania voters. But now, in the sordid and reputation-demolishing aftermath of the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, Corbett’s decency is being questioned in many different quarters. And Susan Corbett’s contention that, of all things, Corbett was most proud of creating a Child Predator Unit, well, let’s just say that a cynical man might now see those comments in a different light.

Here’s what we know (thanks largely to 24-year-old wunderkind/Patriot News cops reporter Sara Ganim, who broke the story, and has been riding it relentlessly ever since): The current investigation into Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of minors was launched in late 2008, when a Clinton County youth alleged he’d been abused by Sandusky for four years. The Centre County district attorney’s office referred the case to Tom Corbett, then the state attorney general, in March 2009. By then, remember, Corbett was a rising star in state politics, and the presumptive GOP gubernatorial front-runner.

We also know that Corbett—who eschewed campaign donations from state lawmakers, lest it taint his Bonusgate investigation—accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Second Mile board members, the charity founded and led for years by Sandusky, even after the case had been referred to the attorney general’s office. And we know that while Corbett was attorney general, the state devoted minimal resources to the investigation. The Patriot News reports that at some points while Corbett was AG there was just one state trooper investigating the case. It wasn’t until January, when a new state police commissioner took office (and Corbett was sworn in as governor), that an additional seven investigators were added to the investigation.

So the question here is pretty simple: Did Corbett slow-walk an explosive investigation out of fear that exposing a scandal at the heart of an institution like Penn State football would wreck his chances to become governor?

Corbett says no. He says that investigations take time to develop, and that this one proceeded at an appropriate pace. There’s no doubt that, by nature, Corbett is perhaps a bit more methodical and careful than your typical prosecutor-turned-politician (think Bruce Castor, Ed Rendell, Arlen Specter). And it’s worth remembering that Corbett was accused of dragging his feet during Bonusgate too, a charge that ultimately proved unfounded.

But ask yourself this: How would Ed Rendell have fared in the press and the court of public opinion had it been his case, and not Corbett’s? He would have been crucified. Fast Eddie, putting innocent kids at risk, all to advance his ambition. And it’s not just Rendell. Most any politician would be in serious trouble, were they in Corbett’s shoes.

So far, though, Pennsylvania voters are giving Corbett the benefit of the doubt. And I think it’s because, like me, their overarching impression of the man has been that he is a decent guy trying to do what he actually thinks is best for the state. For now, only Corbett really knows if he slow-walked the investigation or not (though you have to think Ganim and dozens of other reporters are doing their damnedest to find out for sure). But if he did, well, it’s hard to think of anything more indecent.

UPDATE: This column notes that Corbett passed on legislative campaign contributions to avoid a conflict of interest with his Bonusgate investigation. The reality is a little murkier.