Nassar bills expected to change regardless of MSU deal

Beth LeBlanc, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Lawmakers say they’ll continue work on legislation to prevent child sexual abuse, even as a settlement agreement with Michigan State University requires Larry Nassar’s victims to pull their support from some bills.

State Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, said Thursday he expects some bills to pass out of committee next week.

Rep. Klint Kesto, the Commerce Township Republican who chairs the House Law and Justice panel, said Thursday he expects some bills to pass out of committee next week. But he cautioned the legislation likely would contain revisions.

There’s a “potential” that legislation to limit governmental immunity claims in civil lawsuits could be scrapped, Kesto said.

“Frankly, when we look at criminal sexual assault, we have to look at it as a whole,” Kesto told reporters. “We can’t just say that because of the Nassar situation and there being a settlement that we’re done. We have a responsibility.”

Read more: In wake of Nassar settlement, MSU proposes budget cut

A stipulation of MSU’s $500 million settlement with Nassar’s victims requires that victims pull their support from two bills, said Lawyer Vince Finaldi, who represented about 175 of the more than 300 women suing MSU. One bill would strip governmental immunity in cases of sexual misconduct, and the other would waive minors from legal notice requirements in such lawsuits.

MSU special counsel Bob Young, a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, told reporters from the Association Press and other outlets on Thursday that victim attorneys initially sought a settlement of more than $1 billion.

“But it was mediated, and as I said, I think this ($500 million settlement) is fair and equitable,” Young said. “It’s higher than I wanted, but that’s part of the process of mediation.”

The settlement provides settlement for both the school and victims, he said.

Asked about provisions requiring victims to withdraw support for some bills, Young said the “agreement was that governmental immunity and (notice of intent) defenses would be preserved so that we didn’t settle for half a billion only to have another set of cases just like it.”

Sen. Margaret O’Brien, who sponsored some of the post-Nassar legislation, said she remains committed to the package as it passed out of the Senate in March, including the proposal related to governmental immunity. But she said she would consider changes to win votes and enact “good public policy.”

“These bills were never about Larry Nassar or Michigan State,” said O’Brien, R-Portage. “They were about eradicating childhood sexual abuse, so any of the legislators or outside people who are suggesting it should be stopped, maybe they haven’t been listening.”

The governmental immunity bill is “very important,” she said, adding that children in government-run foster care programs are more likely to be sexually abused than others, but “it may take us a little longer to cross the finish line” on that proposal.

Sponsoring lawmakers and Nassar accusers announced in February legislation that would strip governmental immunity from institutions in cases of sexual abuse, allow victims to file anonymously in the court of claims and extend the criminal and civil statutes of limitations in civil and criminal cases involving childhood victims. The proposal also allows retroactive civil claims for abuse dating back to 1997.

Legislative slowdown

The legislation passed quickly out of the Senate in March, but has been the subject of hours of debate in House committee. Several groups have opposed the legislation because of its potential to create a flood of lawsuits in cases where witnesses are unable to remember details and evidence is no longer available.

The governmental immunity bill was “a big, important issue” for MSU during mediation, which is why it was part of the eventual settlement, Finaldi said.

Dropping the Senate-approved governmental immunity bill would be “a shame,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who sponsored tougher mandatory reporter requirement legislation.

“The Senate has acted, and I think MSU acted because the Senate sent them a strong message that we’re no longer going to tolerate a culture of silence,” Jones said.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, said he will immediately introduce new legislation if the House drops the governmental immunity bill or other provisions he deems critical. But he’ll likely still support the revised package because it would “be an improvement over current law.”

Michigan never should have had a governmental immunity law that applies to sexual assault cases, Hertel argued. “We should not shield people from justice, period,” he said.

Hertel called House hearings on the legislation “disturbing” and suggested GOP House leaders have telegraphed plans to “water down” the Senate package.

If that happens, “we’ll drop new bills and we’ll keep fighting it next session,” he said, referencing 2019. “Hopefully we’ll get a Legislature that will actually do something to make sure the people are protected long term.”

No group decides

Lawmakers’ final decision doesn’t depend on the support, opposition or neutrality of any group, House Speaker Tom Leonard said.

“Certainly, we’ll take the input of victims,” Leonard, R-DeWitt, told reporters. “Certainly we’ll take the input of Michigan State University. But ultimately this committee, this chamber, this body, we are going to do collectively what we feel is best for the state of Michigan and, most importantly, for these victims.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard.

In response to questions from reporters in the Capitol Thursday, interim MSU President Engler praised the House’s slower pace of holding hearings on the legislation. In March, he criticized the Senate’s quick action on legislation as having “interfered” in settlement talks.

“We think the House has been very thoughtful and deliberative in their process,” he said, referring to post-Nassar sexual abuse legislation. “We certainly appreciate that.”

MSU plans to brief lawmakers on the “historic” agreement, Engler said.

The settlement agreement requiring victims to drop support of certain bills was “extraordinary” as it allows one branch of government to demand citizens not engage in advocacy protected by the First Amendment, said James Marsh, an attorney whose White Plains, New York Marsh Law Firm represents sexual abuse victims.

“It’s like basically giving the residents of Flint a bottle of water in exchange for them not exercising their First Amendment rights to petition the Legislature,” said Marsh, whose firm tweeted about the MSU settlement.

A University of Michigan Law School graduate who still owns property in the state, Marsh, partner of New York-based Marsh Law Firm, specializes in representing victims in Title IX, sexual abuse and child pornography cases.

He said the agreement goes beyond the silence of a non-disclosure agreement, which would require the plaintiff to refrain from talking about the event in question or the existence of the agreement.

“This is not a private organization,” Marsh said. “This is the government that’s acting here, and these are First Amendment rights.”

Who will pay?

In a Thursday letter to the campus community, Engler apologized for the damage done by Nassar. He said a settlement was “the best answer” to allow victims to heal and MSU to continue efforts to change the ways it addresses campus sexual assault.

The university can expect no help from the state in paying that settlement, Leonard said.

“My understanding is that Michigan State University has a larger rainy day fund than the state has and, quite frankly, it’s been storming in East Lansing for well over a year,” said the speaker, who met Thursday with Engler. “They created this problem. They need to pay for it.”

Jones echoed the sentiment, and predicted a tuition hike would cost the school students.

“Maybe it’s time for some of them to take a pay cut,” Jones said.

After Engler met with Leonard, the MSU interim president told reporters in Lansing he doesn’t plan to ask state lawmakers for money.

“By successfully concluding these negotiations …, what we’ve done is actually, I think, removed from the Legislature in the future a substantial burden,” Engler said.

House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said he is not in support of any increases in tuition for students, but stopped short of swearing off state assistance in paying the settlement.

“They have not done that and if that conversation pops up I’ll take a look at it,” but the university should look at its available resources before approaching the state, Singh said.

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