(Reuters) - Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said on Wednesday he will ask a federal court to throw out the multimillion-dollar sanctions levied by the NCAA against Penn State University over the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, 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.
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."
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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.
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 now serving a prison term of 30 to 60 years.
The scandal sparked a national discussion and awareness of child sex abuse, embarrassed the university and implicated top officials in the cover-up, including the late Joe Paterno, the legendary football head coach.
Corbett said a lawsuit, to be filed later on Wednesday, will ask a federal court to throw out all Sandusky-related sanctions against Penn State.
James Schultz, general counsel for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who will be handling the case for the governor, said the NCAA failed to follow its own bylaws in determining the penalties against Penn State.
Schultz said Corbett has the proper legal standing to sue the NCAA because he is 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 fall football weekends bring heavy visitor traffic, 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.
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 the Penn State board of 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."
The Sandusky scandal was revealed by a state grand jury convened in 2009 by Corbett, then Pennsylvania's attorney general.
Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, has vowed to probe Corbett's handling of the case. She has said that by convening a grand jury, Corbett failed to protect children by delaying prosecution for more than two years.
Corbett, a Republican, has said he welcomes an investigation into how he handled the case.
A poll of Pennsylvania voters in September found they had a poor view of his handling of the scandal as attorney general.
The Franklin & Marshall College survey noted only one in six registered voters thought he did an excellent or good job, and nearly two thirds thought he did a fair or poor job.
Also, more than half of respondents believed the NCAA sanctions imposed as a result of the Sandusky case were unfair.