Tensions emerge between MSU trustees, Engler

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

For the first time since he took office 2 1/2 months ago, signs of discord emerged Wednesday between interim President John Engler and some members of Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees over his handling of the Larry Nassar sex assault scandal.

In emails obtained by The Detroit News, three trustees expressed concern about Engler’s March 28 meeting with Kaylee Lorincz, one of Nassar’s victims. Lorincz, who filed a lawsuit accusing MSU of failing to protect her, told the trustees Friday that during the meeting, Engler had secretly offered her $250,000 to settle her complaint.

The emails obtained by The News included a response sent to the board by Carol Viventi, an MSU vice president and special counsel to the president, in which she defended Engler and called Lorincz’s statements “outrageously distorted” and an attempt to “set up” MSU and increase the cost of settling her lawsuit against the school.

Viventi, who attended the March 28 meeting, apologized after her comments were published Wednesday by The News and other media outlets.

“I offer my sincerest and most heartfelt apology for the letter I sent to MSU leaders after the Board meeting,” Viventi said in a statement. “I did not think about how my words would make the survivors feel. What the survivors of Larry Nassar have been through should not be experienced by anyone, and I’m sorry my words added to their pain.”

The apology marked the second such statement from the university in less than a week.

On Friday, Engler acknowledged that MSU provided “an unnecessary amount of detail” in a response to a federal lawsuit filed by a student who accused MSU officials of discouraging her from reporting an alleged rape by three basketball players to police.

Lorincz said she was disappointed with Viventi’s apology, saying it didn’t seem sincere since it was obviously about her but never directly addressed her. Also, she said the apology came only because Viventi’s comments to the trustees became public.

“Now that those emails have been publicly leaked, now she makes an apology, after the fact,” Lorincz said. “Why wouldn’t you have apologized before? It’s the same as usual. They really aren’t putting the survivors first. They are still putting dollars signs in front of the survivors. It’s really disgusting. It hurts even more that the survivors aren’t their first priority.”

Lorincz is among 300 women and girls who have filed civil lawsuits against Michigan State and other institutions because of Nassar — an MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually assaulted young women under the guise of a medical treatment for two decades.

In her statement Friday to the trustees, Lorincz, 18, said Engler told her that Rachael Denhollander, another Nassar victim, had given him a settlement figure, which Denhollander later denied.

Lorincz also alleged that Engler dismissed the behavior of William Strampel — the former MSU osteopathic medical school dean who became the first MSU official to be charged as part of a state investigation into the Nassar scandal.

Nassar is accused of sexually abusing more than 250 girls and women for more than two decades while employed by the university and is serving multiple prison terms for criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography.

Board members were mostly silent during Lorincz’s statement. But in her email to the trustees, Viventi defended Engler and criticized Lorincz, calling her claims “pure fiction.”

“Kaylee’s statements to the Board contained many false and inaccurate statements which we did not publicly contradict out of an abundance of concern for the survivors who are quick to claim ‘revictimization’ or ‘shaming’ of survivors whenever they are falsely accusing members of the MSU community,” Viventi wrote. “The President did not and NEVER would have thought to offer her money and certainly NEVER would have attempted to ‘payoff’ an individual survivor.”

The most damning response to Viventi’s email came from Trustee Brian Mosallam, who said in a reply to the MSU attorney that the board has a fiduciary obligation to the university that is legal, moral and ethical.

“I find this Administration’s conduct unacceptable,” Mosallam wrote. “In your email, you admit to meeting with the Lorincz family. At no time did this Board authorize this Administration to interact directly with our courageous survivors or their families.”

Mosallam also wrote that MSU officials, including Engler, Viventi and spokeswoman Emily Guerrant, all work for the board until it decides otherwise.

“Regardless of what happened in that room, the decision to take a meeting with the Lorincz family was exceptionally poor judgment ... It is imperative that every action a representative of this University takes is a reflection of the standard of ethics that we demand of our students, faculty, staff and ourselves,” Mosallam wrote. “I find your judgment to take this meeting with the Lorincz family lacking.”

Trustee Dianne Byrum agreed in an email, and added that she had serious concerns about Engler meeting with Lorincz and her mother.

“Given the upcoming mediation conference, it is very problematic and highly inappropriate to be speaking with the Survivors or their families,” Byrum wrote.

She added that she saw a television report that showed Engler contacting another victim.

“Again, I am extremely concerned about John’s contact with the Survivors,” Byrum wrote. “I believe these actions were self-inflicted mistakes. I am not aware of any Board direction or the Board’s advance knowledge of John’s contact with the Survivors.”

Meanwhile, Trustee Mitch Lyons gave a mixed response in an email to Viventi.

“Carol, as I stated, if true, (Engler’s) comments would be deeply troubling,” Lyons wrote. “Evidently, as you have told us, this isn’t true. I wish the President had refuted her claims immediately instead of letting the Perry Mason moment occur in the board meeting ... His silence was deafening.”

No other board members responded to Viventi’s email, but Trustees Brian Breslin and Joel Ferguson expressed support generally for Engler’s leadership during the board meeting Friday before Lorincz spoke.

Reached Wednesday, Ferguson declined comment.

The controversy over the meeting between MSU officials and Lorincz comes as the university is scheduled to enter mediation next week in New York with attorneys representing 300 victims of Nassar.

It also comes as criticism grows about Engler, from his comments to lawmakers that they interfered with settlement talks by taking up legislation backed by Nassar victims, his appointment of longtime allies to high-profile posts and his criticism of media reports about MSU.

Three MSU groups are planning a rally Friday on campus to call for the resignation of the board and Engler.

John Manly, the attorney representing Lorincz and most of the victims who have filed lawsuits against MSU, called on the Board of Trustees to fire Engler and Viventi.

“Ms Viventi is not only dishonest but her attitude toward the victims is emblematic of the moral sickness that plagues MSU,” Manly said. “The fact she is John Engler’s handpicked adviser is very telling. Any reasonable observer has to conclude Engler and Viventi loathe the survivors. The board should terminate both of them immediately. But they won’t because most of the board secretly loathes these women too.”

In her April 14 email to the board, Viventi disputed Lorincz’s account of the statements Engler allegedly made about Strampel during the meeting with Lorincz, noting that Engler wants to revoke the former dean’s tenture. “There is no way he made light of Strampel’s actions,” Viventi wrote.

Viventi also wrote that Lorincz and her mother, Lisa, demanded the meeting and would not leave, insisting it be kept confidential.

“The meeting began with their pleas (and pleas throughout the meeting) that this meeting be kept ‘confidential’ and they would ‘be in big trouble’ if it was known that they were meeting with us,” Viventi wrote. “I was surprised this was the same Mom that the President had talked to. But I know now that they wanted to meet in person so they could get him to talk to Kaylee, as Bob Young cautioned, to ‘set up’ MSU.”

Young is a longtime political ally of Engler whom the interim president appointed as the lead counsel overseeing the multiple investigations and Title IX complaints involving allegations of sexual misconduct at MSU.

Reached by phone, Lisa Lorincz said five people know what happened in that room, and that’s what matters. But she added that she’s disgusted with the behavior of MSU officials who “continue to attack survivors.”

Meanwhile, she said she has tried to raise her daughter to speak the truth and act with integrity.

“Every step of the way at MSU, from Nassar to (former President) Lou Anna Simon to Engler to Viventi, they keep modeling the exact opposite,” Lorincz said. “It makes you question everything you have tried to teach your kids.”