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Lansing — New fissures emerged Friday in Michigan’s gubernatorial election as Republican Bill Schuette and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer sparred over the blockbuster prosecution of serial pedophile Larry Nassar and the Michigan State University sexual assault scandal.

Whitmer and several Nassar victims called on Schuette to ask the Michigan Republican Party to take down an explosive online ad alleging Whitmer "refused to prosecute Larry Nassar on sexual assault charges" when serving as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016. She called it a “callous, craven” lie.

Schuette, the attorney general whose office ended up prosecuting and convicting Nassar on state charges, repeatedly declined to address the request and said he had not seen the ad.

But he doubled down on the claim, saying Whitmer “failed to prosecute” and “chose not to prosecute this case,” citing a Detroit News story that detailed an apparent strategy dispute between her office and MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap.

Whitmer, who was sexually assaulted decades earlier as an MSU student, was near tears and visibly shaken as she accused Schuette of politicizing the Nassar scandal and strenuously denied claims in the Republican attack ad.

"You are hurting the women who bravely came forward and their families every time you (put Nassar in an ad)," said Whitmer, surrounded by a group of Nassar victims, two fellow prosecutors and a local sheriff. "Get it off the air."

The Michigan GOP defended the ad and a separate new television commercial that accuses Democratic attorney general candidate Dana Nessel of helping protect sex abusers as a criminal defense attorney. It features images of Nassar and Bill Cosby, whose cases her firm had nothing to do with.

Nassar prosecution in question

Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing, served as interim Ingham County prosecutor for six months in 2016 when Nassar victims first began coming forward and helped secure warrants that led to federal child pornography convictions. Schuette filed sexual assault charges against Nassar in November 2016.

As The Detroit News reported last year, MSU's Dunlap suggested Whitmer was initially hesitant to charge Nassar for sexual assault when his department brought the first five or six cases to her in the fall of 2016 and instead wanted to focus on child pornography charges, a characterization Whitmer has called “patently false.”

Whitmer and another top county attorney told The News Dunlap never brought them police reports that would have allowed her office to decide whether to prosecute the assault cases. A day after they discussed prosecution strategy in person, Whitmer emailed Dunlap and told him her team remained “eager to read any and all police reports you send our way.”

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Democrat Gretchen Whitmer responds to GOP attack ad on Larry Nassar prosecution The Detroit News

Whitmer and chief assistant prosecutor Lisa McCormick said MSU police ended up taking the cases to Schuette because the alleged crimes originated in multiple counties — Ingham and Eaton — making his state-level office best suited to lead the prosecution. It is a point Schuette noted when he agreed to review the cases.

"I referred it to my political opponent because it was the right thing to do, and for him now to accuse me of failing to prosecute Nassar is not spin. It's not an angle. It's a lie," Whitmer said. 

But Schuette said Dunlap referred the case, not Whitmer, and pointed to a separate email the chief sent him after meeting with Whitmer in 2016. In the email, as reported by The News, Dunlap thanked Schuette for agreeing to send his team out quickly and said he was hopeful that victims “will now get an advocate.”

“My team at the Attorney General’s Office had the capacity, had the ability and we had the will to do this case,” Schuette said. “She chose not to prosecute this case. These are not easy decisions. Frankly, leadership is not easy.”

Several Republican prosecutors who joined Schuette at the Friday afternoon press conference said counties often charge in cases that span multiple jurisdictions, suggesting Whitmer is “disingenuous” when she cites that as a rationale.

Whitmer called the Republican claims a “vicious lie” and said she’s “done taking the abuse.” She said her office, in consultation with Michigan State Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, concluded the sexual assault charges would best be brought by the attorney general.

“I could have tried to hang on to (the sexual assault) case and filed charges myself and gotten headlines, but as a survivor I wanted to put them first,” Whitmer said. “Not to put them through multiple prosecutions in different counties.”

The MSU police chief kept his distance from the political fray on Friday. In a statement, Dunlap said his department worked closely with Whitmer's office, Schuette's office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Michigan, which handled the federal charges.

“Those efforts were meant to achieve the best possible outcome for the survivors of Larry Nassar," he said, "and by all objective accounts those efforts were successful."

Schuette campaigns on Nassar

Schuette began campaigning on the Nassar case this week with two new television ads featuring Lee and Mark Weick of Midland, whose daughter was abused by the former MSU and USA Gymnastics medical doctor when she was 12.

The parents praise the attorney general in the positive ad, which does not mention Whitmer.  But in a joint interview with Schuette on Tuesday, Lee Weick told The News "it's disappointing when someone doesn't take action on a situation like this in their community."

"I just would have hoped or expected that there would have been action taken, and there wasn’t on her part," Weick said of Whitmer.

Whitmer said she felt uncomfortable seeing Schuette use the Nassar case in a positive ad but was furious when she saw the convicted pedophile's image in the GOP attack ad.

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Attorney General Bill Schuette and Shiawasee County Prosecutor Deana Finnegan discuss the Larry Nassar sexual assault case Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Several Nassar victims agreed, including University of Michigan alumna Grace French, who "politely and respectfully" asked Schuette to make the Michigan GOP take down the ad. 

"It takes the focus away from what we're trying to solve and makes us as survivors a pawn in a divided political climate," French said. "Leave my abuser's face out of politics. Leave sexual assault out of politics. It's a human issue."

Asked about the request, Schuette repeatedly said he had not seen the ad from the Michigan Republican Party. “Any instance of sexual assault is horrific, and every victim of sexual assault deserves justice,” he said. “That’s my response.”

Nassar victim Jane Katzer, a former MSU rower who said she had previously chosen to remain anonymous, also spoke out against the ad, joining fellow victim Morgan McCaul.

Colleen Pero, chief of staff for the Michigan Republican Party, defended the online attack ad as “fact” and said the Nassar case is "an important part of Gretchen Whitmer’s record that voters deserve to know.”

Nessel ad attacks law firm

Democratic attorney general candidate Dana Nessel on Friday accused her Republican opponent, state House Speaker Tom Leonard, of “despicable and unethical tactics” even though the Michigan GOP sponsored an attack ad she objected to.  

“Who is still protecting the sex abusers?” a narrator says in the ad as images of Bill Cosby, Nassar and Nessel flash across the screen. “Dana Nessel’s former law firm specialized in helping men get away with the most heinous acts.”

Nessel’s firm once “questioned a young victim’s memory in order to get their client found not guilty of molesting a five-year-old girl,” the ad claims, citing descriptions that had been posted on the Nessel and Kessel website. “They bragged about preventing sex crime charges and worked to convince judges to drop protective orders.”

The ad, as it refers to the 5-year-old girl, cites information that was once published on a blog on the Nessel and Kessel Law website, said Chris Kessel. Nessel and Kessel run two separate firms that operate under a joint DBA or doing business as, but Kessel has sole ownership and control of the website, he said. 

The girl in question was 12 or 13 years old when she testified about the incident from her younger years, he said, and the man she accused was later found not guilty on the charge for which Kessel was defending him.

Kessel said he stands by his work as a defense attorney, but stressed it was his work, not Nessel’s.

“That was a case that I handled that Dana had absolutely nothing to do with,” Kessel said.

Nessel's campaign called for the ad to be taken down and for her opponent Leonard to join in that call. 

"Falsely aligning anyone with some of the most notorious sexual assault perpetrators in American history is totally unethical, irresponsible, and frankly repugnant," Nessel's campaign said. 

Michigan Republican Party communications director and deputy chief of staff Sarah Anderson said the images of Nassar and Cosby were used in the Nessel attack ad “because they’re well-known sex offenders.”

“The implication is that she defended the worst kind of criminals,” Anderson said. “Their website bragged about getting convicted sex offenders removed from the sex offender registry.”

The Nessel and Kessel law firm website noted amendments to Michigan law allowing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ offenders — those who were under 18 but had consensual sex with someone under 16 — and minors who were under the age of 14 at the time of their conviction to remove their names from the sex offender registry.

“Don’t let a sex offense ruin your life,” the site said.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed “Romeo and Juliet” relief legislation into law in 2011. The package was sponsored by Republican Sens. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge and Phil Pavlov of Port Huron.

The Leonard campaign had nothing to do with the ad, said Leonard spokesman Gideon D'Assandro.

"As you can see from his new ads, Tom Leonard is focused on his proven track record as a tough on crime prosecutor and his plan to make Michigan safer and stronger," D'Assandro said. "Dana Nessel's choice to defend criminals speaks for itself in a race to be the state's top law enforcement official."

Pero said the ad was meant to contrast with a recent Nessel campaign ad that touted her former role as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County but did not mention her more recent work as a defense attorney.

“You can’t go on TV and say you’re a prosecutor and then object when someone says what you’ve been doing for the last 13 years,” Pero said. Leonard, the Republican nominee, has “dedicated his life to serving people” while Nessel “profited off cases (her firm said) most people shy away from.”

Anderson noted Democrat Pat Miles' campaign raised similar issues when he competed with her for the party endorsement. "One of the great things about this country is that people are entitled to a defense," she said, but Nessel's firm decided which clients to take and touted their work on troubling cases.

Those cases have since been “scrubbed” from the Nessel and Kessel law firm, she noted.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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