Nassar judge gets name removed from GOP attack ad, says 'politicizing' case 'appalling'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina addresses a six-page letter to her from Larry Nassar complaining of having to "sit through a four-day media circus." Judge Aquilina had no sympathy for the convicted felon.

Lansing — The Michigan Republican Party said Saturday it will honor Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s request to remove her name from a controversial ad attacking Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer over the prosecution of serial molester Larry Nassar.

The online ad, which accuses Whitmer of “refusing” to prosecute Nassar when she served as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016, which she had denied, features CNN footage of Nassar with text identifying “the voice of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina” while an unidentified narrator criticizes the candidate.

Read more: Denhollander challenges Whitmer's handling of Nassar cases

While the GOP may have legal authority to use the news footage, they could have cropped her name out and did not ask permission to use it in the ad, Aquilina told The Detroit News on Saturday, “but more importantly, they really shouldn’t be politicizing the Nassar case.”

“At some point I’ll talk about the Nassar case, but I’m very sad they are politicizing what happened to those sister survivors and this whole issue. It’s just appalling.”

Michigan Republican Party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said officials had not realized Aquilina’s name appeared in the ad, which is in heavy rotation on Facebook, and will remove it.

Anderson denied the judge's characterization the party is politicizing the case, referring to a Friday statement that it is "an important part of Gretchen Whitmer’s record that voters deserve to know.”

Aquilina’s request came one day after she asked Whitmer to move a press conference that had been planned for her courtroom after the Democrat’s campaign had used her name in a media advisory. The event was moved to a lower-floor meeting room instead due to what Whitmer’s campaign described as an availability issue.

Courtrooms are “used freely” by the public and requests are typically honored, Aquilina said, but judge’s names in those courtrooms are then blacked out to avoid the impression of involvement. When she learned the Whitmer campaign included her name in the advisory, Aquilina said she considered it an emergency and told them it was improper.

Simultaneously, she said, Michigan GOP chief of staff Colleen Pero called the Ingham County courthouse and threatened to file a judicial tenure complaint against her, Aquilina said. “To which I laughed and said, really?  I didn’t authorize my name.”

While she ran for the state Senate as a Democrat in 1997 and earlier this year briefly entertained party recruiters who wanted her to run for the Michigan Supreme Court, Aquilina’s post on the 30th Circuit Court for Ingham County is non-partisan and she said it is inappropriate for her to appear to be taking sides in the gubernatorial race.

Aquilina said people began to contact her by text and Twitter late Friday asking why her name was in the GOP attack ad, which she was not aware of until that time. She said she was pleased the GOP will remove her name and hopes both gubernatorial campaigns focus on plans to fight sexual assault in the future.

“Every time (Nassar) is raised, especially in this way of who did what and who didn’t do what, it just hurts the girls,” she said of the political attack ad. “I didn’t want to see it. His family needs to heal, the girls need to heal, so making it now into a political battle, it’s inappropriate.”

In her courthouse press conference on Friday, Whitmer and several Nassar victims called on the GOP to remove the ad, which she said was a “callous, craven” lie. Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican candidate for governor whose office ended up prosecuting Nassar, did not respond to those requests but doubled down on claims that Whiter “chose” not to prosecute Nassar.

Rachel Denhollander, the first victim to publicly accuse the Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics sports doctor of sexual assault, on Saturday challenged Whitmer’s account of why her office did not lead the prosecution.

MSU police took the case to the attorney general “"only after the determination by the Ingham County office to not pursue charges for any sexual assault,” Denhollander said in a statement. Whitmer's response highlighted a separate federal case, saying her office "acted swiftly and decisively to get the warrants that produced the evidence that led to Larry Nassar's first 60 year conviction."

Denhollander said she chose to address the issue because she had repeatedly been asked to clarify “certain facts by various candidates,” but she also bemoaned politicization of the case.

“We, and our stories, are not political pawns to be used by either side of the aisle. I sincerely hope that this will end,” she said.

Aquilina said Saturday afternoon she would like to see the gubernatorial candidates focus on solutions for all victims of sexual assault and how they would work to deter another Nassar-type scandal if they were elected.

“This should be a time of healing, not slinging mud or taking credit,” she said. “this is not just a Nassar problem, this is a global problem, so how are these gubernatorial candidates going to remedy such a terrible crime against all people?”

Schuette last week began running positive campaign ads that feature parents of a Nassar victim praising him for prosecuting the case and “giving a voice to the voiceless” by requiring victim impact statements as part of a plea deal with Nassar.

The plea deal specified that 125 victims who reported their crimes to MSU police and victims of “other acts” by Nassar that had been included in a witness list would be guaranteed the right to speak at sentencing or give written statements.

Aquilina said she always allows victim impact statements in her courtroom.

“When they came to me with the plea deal, I said I will allow everyone to speak,” she said. “They put in the number 125 when they reduced it to writing, but that’s because that was the number they had. There was no number in my head.”