Lansing — Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon should resign because the university has failed young women who were sexually assaulted by former gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar, state House Speaker Tom Leonard said Monday.
The DeWitt Republican is the first high-rannking state official to call for Simon to step down in the wake of the scandal. He’s joining calls for an independent probe of MSU after internal investigators cleared university officials of wrongdoing but did not produce a report of their findings.
“The best-case scenario for Michigan State University is that there was absolutely gross negligence all the way to the top, and worst-case scenario, something’s being covered up,” Leonard told The Detroit News.
Asked about Leonard’s comments, an MSU spokesman pointed to a Dec. 3 joint statement by the university’s Board of Trustees that expressed “full confidence” in Simon and called her “the right leader” for the school.
Nassar, 54, has pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct covering nine victims in separate Ingham and Eaton county court cases. Most victims of the former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor are expected to give impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing in January, including 125 victims who reported incidents to MSU.
Leonard’s call for Simon to resign comes five days after an attorney who represents MSU and led the university’s internal investigation said he could not provide Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette with a copy of his findings because no report was ever prepared.
Former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told Schuette his team investigated the university to determine if any evidence was “knowingly assisted or concealed” and would have reported any such evidence to law enforcement if it had been found.
Leonard said he was “appalled” internal investigators did not document their findings in any report. A former assistant prosecutor for Genesee County, Leonard said his office went through hundreds of investigations and thousands of warrants during his three-year tenure.
“Not once was there ever a situation where we had an investigation and a report wasn’t produced,” Leonard said. “There were often times that a report didn’t produce charges, but there was always a report that was produced.”
Asked about Leonard’s comparison, MSU spokesman Jason Cody said there is a difference between a criminal investigation and “a factual review being done by external counsel.”
When asked about the call for Simon to resign, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, who spoke before the Detroit Economic Club on Monday, said he is not intimately familiar with the Nassar scandal.
“It is a pretty common instinct to look to the leader of an organization and blame them,” said Schlissel. “So as a leader of an organization, I think you have to be very thoughtful and very careful about where you place blame for a challenging problem.”
Generally, Schlissel added, heads of any organization ultimately are responsible for the entity they lead.
“The idea is that we select good people, hold them accountable and be in a culture where everyone is trying to their best job,” Schlissel said.
Term-limited in the House, Leonard is seeking the Republican nomination for state attorney general in 2018. His top GOP rival for the post, state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, was among a group of senators who met with Nassar victims last week in Lansing.
Former U.S. Attorney Pat Miles, a Democrat seeking the attorney general nomination, and gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer are among others also calling for an independent investigation of MSU.
Leonard said the probe should include the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Schuette’s office and state police.
MSU “botched” a Title IX investigation in 2014 and has “not been responsive” to the young women that Nassar sexually assaulted, said Leonard, who earned his juris doctorate from the Michigan State University College of Law.
“This all leads to the fact that one of the finest universities in this country — their reputation has been completely tarnished,” he said. “I don’t see any way the healing process is going to begin and we are going to start doing these young women justice until we have another president sitting at Michigan State University.”
Until now, few political leaders have weighed in on the issue.
“I am so grateful for leaders who are willing to speak for the victims, even when it could cost (them),” one of Nassar’s victims, Rachael Denhollander, said Monday. “That is real leadership. For so long we have had to fight for ourselves and been silenced. It has been exhausting, discouraging and painful. To everyone willing to take a stand, thank you.”
Other victims feel the same, added John Manly, a California-based attorney representing 106 women in civil lawsuits.
“Our clients are very grateful to Speaker Leonard for his call to hold President Simon accountable for MSU’s serious failures regarding the Larry Nassar child and athlete molestation case,” said Manly.
“All of the survivors hope and pray that at Friday’s MSU Trustee meeting, all the trustees, beginning with Chairman Brian Breslin and Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson, will demand MSU cease treating Larry Nassar’s victims as adversaries and begin the process of healing and real accountability that the survivors and the MSU community needs to recover from this horror.”
MSU trustees defended Simon earlier this month after the Lansing State Journal called on her to resign over the Nassar scandal.
“We have been kept fully informed and regularly updated about the legal team’s work on (the Nassar case), and they have repeatedly assured us that if they learn of criminal wrongdoing by any employee, at any level, it will immediately be reported to law enforcement authorities,” they said in a joint statement. “None has been found by anyone other than Nassar.”
In a letter to Schuette last week, Fitzgerald said the internal MSU investigation led by his law firm and another did not produce evidence that any university officials “believed that Nassar committed sexual abuse prior to newspaper reports in late summer 2016.”
Nassar “fooled everyone” around him, including colleagues, Fitzgerald said. He noted there was an FBI investigation as he criticized plaintiff attorneys also calling for an independent investigation.
“While many in the community today wish that they had identified Nassar as a predator, we believe the evidence in this case will show that no one else at MSU knew that Nassar engaged in criminal behavior,” Fitzgerald said.
Nassar was separately sentenced last week by a federal judge to 60 years in prison for possessing 37,000 images of child pornography. The pornography emerged in September 2016 when Denhollander reported that Nassar had sexually abused her when she was a 15-year-old gymnast.
MSU fired Nassar soon after he turned in his work laptop computer that had been wiped completely clean. Then MSU police discovered external hard drives that had been thrown away in Nassar’s garage can in front of his house on trash collection day.