The NCAA overstepped its authority to impose "harsh penalties" on Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday as he announced a federal lawsuit against the college athletics governing body, which called it a "setback" to the recovery of the school.
Corbett said the university and the state have been harmed over the abuse committed by Sandusky, a former assistant football coach. The NCAA "piled on" and acted unlawfully because it stands to benefit from the sanctions, he said.
"A handful of top NCAA officials simply asserted themselves into an issue they had no authority to police under their own bylaws, and one that was clearly being handled by the justice system," Corbett said at a news conference.
The governor did not release a draft of the complaint, which was expected to be filed Wednesday afternoon in Harrisburg federal court. It will seek to overturn all the penalties to which the university's president agreed in July, which included an agreement to pay a $60 million fine for child abuse prevention grants, endure a four-year bowl game ban for the university's football program and a loss of footballs scholarships.
The NCAA blasted Corbett's announcement.
"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 Executive Vice President and General Counsel Donald M. Remy said in a statement. "While the innocence that was stolen can never be restored, Penn State has accepted the consequences for its role and the role of its employees and is moving forward."
When the deal was announced, Corbett — also a member of the university's board of trustees — said he wanted assurance tax money would not go toward the fine, and added that part of the "corrective process is to accept the serious penalties."
Corbett said he waited until now to file the lawsuit because he wanted to thoroughly research the legal issues and did not want it to interfere with football season.
When the sanctions were announced, Corbett expressed relief that Penn State had escaped the "death penalty" that would have dismantled the football program for a season or more. He later expressed a desire to keep the $60 million in fines within Pennsylvania.
The NCAA agreement has been unpopular with a significant portion of the university community, but Corbett, who is up for re-election next year, deflected a question about whether his handling has helped or hurt him politically.
"We're not going to get into the politics of this," he said. An outside law firm was being retained to handle the matter, but Corbett's general counsel did not provide an estimate of cost.
"Any of the costs associated with this ... pale in comparison" with the losses people have already suffered, said Corbett's top legal adviser, James Schultz.
Corbett, a Republican, said his office did not coordinate its legal strategy with state Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, who is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 15. Instead, the current attorney general, Linda Kelly, agreed to grant the governor authority to pursue the matter.
Kane, a Democrat, ran on a vow to investigate why it took state prosecutors nearly three years to charge Sandusky, an assistant under longtime football coach Joe Paterno. Corbett was the attorney general when that office took over the case in early 2009 and until he became governor in January 2011. Schultz said he would talk with Kane about the lawsuit later Wednesday.
The late football coach's family released a statement Wednesday saying they were encouraged by the lawsuit. Corbett "now realizes, as do many others, that there was an inexcusable rush to judgment" in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, the statement said.
State and congressional lawmakers from Pennsylvania have objected to using the NCAA's fine to finance activities in other states. Penn State has already made the first $12 million payment, and an NCAA task force is deciding how it should be spent.
The NCAA, which has declined to comment on the planned lawsuit, has said at least a quarter of the money would be spent in Pennsylvania.
Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent called that "unacceptable and unsatisfactory."
Last week, state Sen. Jake Corman, a Republican whose district includes Penn State's main campus, said he plans to seek court action barring any of the first $12 million from being released to groups outside the state.
Sandusky, 68, was convicted in June on charges he sexually abused 10 boys, some on Penn State's campus. He's serving a 30- to 60-year state prison term.
Eight young men testified against him, describing a range of abuse they said went from grooming and manipulation to fondling, oral sex and anal rape when they were boys.
Sandusky has maintained his innocence, acknowledging he showered with boys but insisting he never molested them.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.