Senators, victims slam Engler's response to Nassar scandal

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Michigan State University Interim President John Engler speaks during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on "Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes," on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

Washington — Michigan State University interim President John Engler faced withering criticism Tuesday from Democrats as he testified before a U.S. Senate panel about the school's response to the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, with one lawmaker effectively accusing him of lying under oath. 

Speaking in a packed hearing room before members of a Senate Commerce subcommittee, Engler said the university has made strides in restoring trust and accountability in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, while acknowledging, "We all failed the survivors." 

But lawmakers and victims said Engler, a former Republican governor, fell short in his leadership during his first six months at MSU and needs to make amends.

Engler's appearance before the panel, which is investigating cultural and systemic issues related to the abuse of Olympic athletes, was the first time he has publicly answered questions from lawmakers about Nassar — a former sports doctor for MSU and USA Gymnastics — since taking the helm of the university in late January.

At Tuesday's hearing, Engler doubled down on his denial that he privately offered Michigan gymnast Kaylee Lorincz of Macomb County $250,000 to settle her lawsuit.

"Mr. Engler, I’m not going to let this issue go," said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the panel's ranking Democrat.

"I think it goes to the heart of the reason we’re here. I just want to say for the record, I believe Kaylee Lorincz."

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, told Engler she was “appalled” by an email he wrote disparaging Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse. In the email, Engler suggested Denhollander might get a "kickback" from her attorney for "manipulating" other victims. 

His comments, published in June, led to calls for Engler’s resignation from multiple Michigan politicians and two MSU trustees.

“Your treatment of this issue raises concerns about how MSU will move forward here. Even with all the evidence, why did you doubt Ms. Denhollander?” Hassan asked.  

“The email was, of course, in the midst of our very difficult negotiations, and it was private,” Engler said, referring to lawsuit settlement talks.

“It reflected, I guess, just the passions of the moment about whether or not there were referral fees being paid. The reality is that our actions today, I think, have consistently shown our support for the survivors.”

Hassan interrupted Engler.

“Not only are these strong, accomplished, smart athletes who have overcome enormous barriers in their lives to reach the pinnacle of their sport, they have survived unspeakable abuse. The notion that you think they can be manipulated by trial lawyers and that you would speak of them that way, is just deeply, deeply offensive. Private mail or not,” Hassan said.

“It reflects an attitude at the top of the institution that you're asking this committee, your current students, your current athletes, your alumni to trust. And I think you have some repair work to do, to put it mildly."

The room burst into applause. 

Under questioning by Blumenthal, Engler said he never discussed money during his private meeting with Lorincz. 

"There was not any discussion of a settlement," Engler said, noting Lorincz is now part of the $500 million settlement that MSU reached with 330 Nassar accusers. 

"We have different recollections about that conversation than she has," he said, referring to himself and two female administrators who attended.

After the hearing, Lorincz told reporters she would "not tolerate being called a liar." 

"That does not sit well with me," said Lorincz, a student at Adrian College. "This fight is not over with John Engler."

DeWitt native and Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber, who attended the hearing, said she "100 percent" believes Lorincz's account.

"It's just very saddening to think someone's possibly lying under oath, but also it's very scary to think that's the leadership that they have at MSU," said Wieber, who says Nassar molested her starting at age 12 or 13. 

"There's so many student athletes there who need, right now, leadership and a system and environment where they feel comfortable speaking out against sexual abuse. Unfortunately, I don't believe with him in that position that will be the case."  

Also on Tuesday's panel were Susanne Lyons, acting chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee; Kerry Perry, the president and chief executive officer for USA Gymnastics; and Han Xiao, chair of the USOC's Athletes' Advisory Council. 

Engler took over at MSU in January after President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned in the wake of Nassar's sentencing for sexually abusing girls and women under the guise of medical treatment.

Engler said in his opening statement that Nassar's crimes had "shocked the MSU community and the nation."

"The statements and testimony of the survivors, before your subcommittee and the courts, have saddened all of us," Engler told the committee.

"Our hearts go out to them, and we are truly sorry that a former faculty member perpetrated these crimes through his associations with MSU, USA gymnasts, the U.S. Olympic Committee. We all failed the survivors. At MSU, my commitment is to make sure this never happens again."

An estimated 80 accusers of Nassar attended Tuesday's hearing, including an 11-year-old girl who said her abuse by Nassar began at age 8. They and their supporters filled the first five rows in the hearing room, wearing teal ribbons in honor of sexual assault awareness.

In his opening statement, Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, noted many of the Nassar victims were honored at last week’s ESPY Awards, where they accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in Los Angeles. 

“We are here today to remind all survivors this: We are listening, we are committed to change and we will make certain the next generation of athletes are free to compete and represent our nation without the fear of abuse,” Moran said. 

In his statement to the committee, Engler outlined some of the steps the school has taken to ensure the university has safeguards to prevent future abuse, including removing those who "enabled" Nassar.

He highlighted efforts to revoke the tenure of William Strampel, the former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, who had supervised Nassar. 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, highlighted a Detroit News investigation that found 14 MSU staff members had received reports of Nassar’s sexual abuse over two decades. 

Asked by Peters, Engler acknowledged no one has been removed to date aside from Nassar and Strampel, who retired earlier this month under threat of losing his tenure. 

“There is an ongoing investigation by the attorney general of the state of Michigan at the request of the board of trustees to see if anyone else should be subject to sanctions,” Engler said, adding he believes all 14 individuals named in The News' report have been interviewed by investigators. 

Peters asked Engler if he believes there was a culture of "enabling and covering up" for Nassar over 20 years at MSU. 

Engler said he felt the university's protocols and policy of "shared governance" didn't lead to specific accountability. "There are issues for sure," he said. Asked if there's a job to instill trust, Engler said, "Absolutely."

"Trust is done by accountability and people taking responsibility for their roles," Engler said. 

Peters criticized Engler's "lack of empathy and respect for survivors," especially for Lorincz and Denhollander. Engler said he has apologized to Denhollander.

Peters entered into the record a letter signed by 120 Nasssar victims to MSU trustees calling for Engler to be replaced. The letter said Engler has “only reinforced the culture of abuse at MSU” and that organizational changes don’t mean anything if victims don’t feel safe to speak out.

Peters then posed a question offered by a victim: “If your presence is so harmful to survivors, why should you keep your job?”

Engler said complaints about Nassar have continued to be submitted under his leadership at the university. 

He said officials have fixed problems at the school’s medical clinic by strengthening protocols and the chaperone policy, billing and reporting procedures, as well as reaching the settlement with accusers and "fully cooperating" with ongoing investigations, he said.

Engler also said that, while there's an ongoing national search for a new president, he will not be a candidate. 

Engler, an alumnus of MSU, said in his written testimony that he took the university's post without a salary "because I owe the university for the positive role it played in my success and in order to address the crisis and lay a positive foundation for a new president."

Engler also acknowledged "there are things I could and should have done differently and better" in his first six months on the job, calling them "challenging." 

"I regret my errors and have publicly acknowledged them," Engler wrote. "I recognize that there have been frustrating periods during that time, but I am also confident that we have accomplished much."

Twitter: @nannburke

Kim Kozlowski contributed.