Forsyth defends independence of MSU probe

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Special prosecutor Bill Forsyth on Wednesday defended the independence of his investigation into Michigan State University amid questions and criticism over his contract and appointment agreement with Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Forsyth will earn $12,333 a month while leading the probe into MSU’s handling of sexual assault allegations against disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar, according to contract documents provided by Schuette’s office.

The retired Kent County prosecutor will also be reimbursed for travel and lodging expenses and can hire an expert witness. The contract runs through 2018 and maxes out at $175,000, unless increased or extended by the attorney general.

Forsyth will “serve under my direction and my pleasure,” Schuette wrote in a Jan. 27 appointment letter. “Mr. Forsyth’s authority to act as my representative is limited to the investigation of Michigan State University as a result of the sexual abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar.”

That language prompted critics to question how heavily Schuette, a Republican who is running for governor, is involved in the investigation. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is competing with Schuette for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, said the documents show that Forsyth works at the direction of Schuette and that the scope of his investigation is severely limited.

But Forsyth disputed that characterization.

“I would not have taken the job of investigating what went wrong at Michigan State University if I didn’t have the independence to the job as I saw fit,” he said in a statement. “The attorney general has granted me complete independence and has given me the full weight of the Department of Attorney General to assist in my investigation.”

Schuette’s office first introduced Forsyth as an independent special prosecutor, but that title is not listed in his contract. Instead, Forsyth is officially working as a special assistant attorney general and functioning as an independent contractor for the department.

“Attorney General Schuette has made clear in public statements, and in his direction to his staff and Mr. Forsyth, that Mr. Forsyth is the lead on this investigation – strategy, direction and any other activities are directed solely by Mr. Forsyth,” Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said in a Wednesday email.

The appointment letter uses “standard language” when choosing a special prosecutor, she said.

Schuette publicly announced what he called an “ongoing investigation” on Jan. 27, but his office has not specified when the probe began. Documents released Wednesday show Forsyth took an oath of office one day before the announcement.

The agreement doesn’t make clear whether Forsyth has hired any support staff. The contract says the special prosecutor will have the “proper facilities and personnel to perform the services and work agreed to be performed.”

Bitely said Schuette has given the “full weight” of his office to Forsyth, noting that “questions may arise in different areas of the department at various points in this investigation that require different expertise.”

Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi is assigned to the case, along “several of our special agents” and a team from the Michigan State Police, she said.

“I can’t get into specifics of assignments, because this is an open investigation and disclosing that information could disclose investigative strategy,” Bitely said.

Forsyth’s contract sets out a peer review process of any special prosecutor’s report before it is released “to ensure that taxpayers and survivors get the product they expect out of Mr. Forsyth’s investigation,” Bitely said, adding that it is accepted practice to have “a second set of eyes on any report.”

The agreement for legal services requires Forsyth to work at least 64 hours a month.

Flint special prosecutor Todd Flood has operated under similar oversight of the Attorney General’s Office.

Critics have questioned potential conflicts of interest for both Schuette and Forsyth as the attorney general’s office investigates MSU, including ties to university booster Peter Secchia.

House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said Schuette should recuse himself from the MSU investigation and create a “firewall” within his office, as he has done with other probes.

Singh noted that Schuette is running for governor and argued he has already “politicized” the investigation, citing a raid at MSU criticized by interim President John Engler because television crews apparently knew it was going to happen.

“I’m just disappointed you would continue to call this an independent investigation in the public eye and then when you read the letter it’s so clear that he is actually running the actual investigation himself,” Singh said.

Calley recently proposed the creation of a new class of independent special prosecutor in state law for cases where conflicts may arise in the Attorney General’s Office. He reiterated that call Wednesday while criticizing Schuette’s role in the MSU investigation.

“The attorney general should apologize to the people of Michigan for misrepresenting the independence of the prosecutor that he has hired to work for him,” Calley said in a statement issued by his campaign.

“More importantly, a truly independent prosecutor should be named who will have the authority to look into any mishandling or wrongdoing by the attorney general in the delay of holding Michigan State accountable.”

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, a Democrat who ran against Schuette in 2010 but has partnered with him on the Flint water crisis investigation, stood up Wednesday for Forsyth.

“If Bill Forsyth says he’s conducting an independent investigation that’s all I need to hear,” Leyton wrote on Twitter. “He is a man of the greatest integrity. Enough with the negativity.”