Engler: No more Nassar investigations at MSU

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State University Interim President John Engler answers questions from The Detroit News Editorial Board and reporters in the Tony Snow conference room at The Detroit News in downtown Detroit on Friday, January 11, 2019.

Michigan State University interim President John Engler said Friday he is done with investigations into the university's handling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, saying officials are "trying to go back to work" despite calls from victims and others for more scrutiny to bring resolution and accountability.

Engler made the statement during a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board, as he outlined numerous steps the university has taken to correct the problems that allowed Nassar to prey on young women at MSU for decades.

Engler defended the university's cooperation with the Michigan Attorney General's office, whose special investigator accused the university of stonewalling investigators in a report released last month.

"We are pleased with the report," Engler said, "because he found no criminal wrongdoing and (we) vigorously disagree with the idea that there was anything but full cooperation."  

He added that the university is withholding 29 documents under attorney-client privilege but if a judge rules that MSU should give them to investigators, "we are happy to turn those over." 

Engler also defended himself against criticism from Nassar victims and supporters who say his words and actions since becoming interim president have shown disdain for them.

"I have great empathy for the individuals who were hurt by Larry Nassar," Engler said. "They have been carrying this, in some cases, for 20 years."

When asked whether he would support an investigation like the one like General Motors Co. did to examine its culture during the automaker's ignition switch recall, Engler said one was not needed.

"The good news is we've already done that," Engler said, citing a report completed by a Kansas City law firm in 2018.

"Husch Blackwell has been there, they looked at our Title IX process, they've given us lots of advice and based on that, we made lots of changes."

Pressed further, Engler said he would not support another investigation.

Michigan State University Interim President John Engler answers questions from The Detroit News Editorial Board and reporters in the Tony Snow conference room at The Detroit News in downtown Detroit on Friday, January 11, 2019.

"There are some people who want to continue to investigate and inquire into lots of things," Engler said. "I wouldn't support any more ... We're trying to get rid of lawyers and consultants now. We're trying to go back to work."

Engler's comments prompted strong reactions on Twitter.

Jacob Denhollander, the husband of Rachael Denhollander, the women who first publicly accused Nassar, called for Engler to be fired.

"When you are eager to 'get back to work' and move on from the worst case of serial sexual predation of minors in decades while obstructing attempts to get to the bottom of what happened ... Well, it tells everyone a lot about what sort of a person you are," Denhollander tweeted.

He added that Engler is "thumbing his nose at the board right now."

"This is a huge test for the new board members especially (Brianna Scott)," Denhollander tweeted. "Will they support efforts for actual change and accountability, or are they going to be defenders of the status quo they were elected to challenge?"

 Kathy Haselmaier — a  Colorado resident who created an online appeal demanding that MSU revive a fund to cover counseling costs for Nassar's victims —  tweeted that she was confused by the sentiments Engler expressed.

"Because it erodes the trust that was starting to be rebuilt during the recent MSU Board of Trustees meeting," Haselmaier wrote. "Why is (Engler) undermining progress made by the trustees? Why not promote healing instead of running from the truth?"

Earlier this week after an MSU board meeting, Trustee Brian Mosallam told reporters he has called three times for an independent investigation. He pointed to a 2014 report that GM commissioned by former U.S. Attorney Anton R. Valukas, which explored how faulty ignition switches caused more than 50 crashes and at least 13 deaths — a number that was later revised to 124.

Mosallam and others have called for that review to examine the culture problems that led to Nassar's crimes, and go beyond the attorney general's recent investigation.

"The attorney general's office was looking for criminality," Mosallam said. "I wanted a report on accountability: who, what, where, when."

Mosallam said he sent an email last year to one of MSU's law firms, asking for a decision on whether to conduct an independent investigation, including privileged information, and produce a public report. 

But Mosallam said his request was blocked by Brian Breslin, the former chair of the board. He said that Breslin told him, "We're not going to go down that road."

Breslin could not be reached for comment Friday.

With several new members joining the board this month, Mosallam said he will discuss putting together a report to "show transparency."

Mosallam, who was defeated in a bid to be elected board chair earlier this week, is not the only one to call for an independent investigation.

After Trustee Joel Ferguson successfully nominated Trustee Dianne Byrum as chair of the board this week, Rachael Denhollandertweeted five things that Byrum has refused to do.

Among them was opening an independent investigation. 

"We asked for this for months," Denhollander tweeted. "It took Penn State only a few days to take this step. MSU never did. And then they refused to cooperate with the AG's investigation. You want change? Find out what needs to change first. Investigate."