By Ellen Wulfhorst
(Reuters) - Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said on Wednesday he will seek 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," the governor said at a news conference in State College where the university is located. He said a lawsuit would be filed asking a federal court to throw out all Sandusky-related sanctions against Penn State.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of U.S. collegiate sports, fined Penn State $60 million in July and voided its football victories for the past 14 seasons in a dramatic rebuke for its failure to stop Sandusky's sexual abuse of children.
"This was a criminal matter, not a violation of NCAA rules," Corbett said. He added that he believed the NCAA acted as it did because it benefited from the sizable penalty.
"These punishments threaten to have a devastating, long-lasting and irreparable effect on the state, its citizens and its economy," the governor said. "I cannot and will not stand by and let it happen without a fight."
The Republican governor has come under criticism for his handling of the scandal, which was revealed by a grand jury he 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 too 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 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.
James Schultz, general counsel for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who will be handling the case for the governor, said by suing, Corbett was acting on behalf of state residents and businesses "collaterally damaged" by the NCAA sanctions.
The sanctions hurt businesses and residents, particularly in State College where football games bring lots of visitors, he said.
"In the wake of this terrible scandal, Penn State was left to heal and clean up this tragedy that was created by the few," Corbett said.
In State College, 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 Penn State 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 nation 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."
The family, which took strong exception to the Freeh report, had said it was convening its own experts to review the case and the actions of the board and school administration. Paterno died a year ago of lung cancer.
His family said on Wednesday it expects to release its findings "in the near future."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Dan Burns and Peter Rudegeair in New York and Dave Warner in Philadelphia, Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Kenneth Barry and Claudia Parsons)
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