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An attorney for John Engler is disputing Attorney General Dana Nessel's accusation that he is dodging investigators in the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal, but says the former Michigan State University leader won't agree to an interview unless an assistant attorney general recuses herself.

"Engler has (at) all times been willing, and agreed, to meet with you and your agent, Michigan Department of Attorney General Supervisory Special Agent David Dwyre, to answer questions about the matter," Seth B. Waxman wrote in a letter Tuesday to Christina Grossi, who is the lead assistant attorney general in the probe.

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"At no time has he communicated any unwillingness to do so."

However, Waxman, added, "You have prejudged Mr. Engler's veracity and motives without ever talking to him" and wrote that Grossi demonstrated "your personal bias against Mr. Engler by claiming you are personally 'embarrassed' as 'an alumna of Michigan State' that Mr. Engler will not sit for an interview — a claim that is entirely inconsistent with Mr. Engler's agreement to meet voluntarily."

He concluded his letter: "Accordingly, unless and until you are properly recused from the case and in no way connected to the investigation as a whole in any manner, I have advised Mr. Engler to decline to participate in a voluntary interview with your office."

Waxman said the AG's Office canceled an Engler interview scheduled for March 28 "for no legitimate reason."

But Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said the interview with Engler, set to take place in Washington, D.C., was canceled "when we realized he had been in Michigan several times ... for (basketball) games."

"(It) confirmed our concerns that he was 'forum shopping' and in addition we didn't believe it was appropriate to spend taxpayer dollars to fly an investigator down to (Washington), D.C."

In response to Waxman's call for recusal of Grossi, Rossman-McKinney said Wednesday evening: 

“There is absolutely no need for Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi to recuse herself because there is no current case nor is she investigating John Engler," Rossman-McKinney said. "She is, however, the project manager for all of the investigations related to MSU including but not limited to arranging for our lead investigator to meet with former MSU Interim President John Engler. Attorney General Nessel has total confidence in Ms. Grossi’s abilities and she will continue to serve in that capacity.”

In a March 19 letter to Dianne Byrum, chair of the MSU trustees, Nessel wrote that the March 28 meeting was set "based on our understanding that Mr. Engler would not be back in Michigan any time soon."

"You can image my dismay then when I learned from media reports that Mr. Engler had attended several recent Michigan State basketball games, including the game in East Lansing on March 9th," Nessel wrote.

Nessel wrote to Byrum after Engler was spotted courtside at the the Big Ten title tournament game in Chicago over the weekend. 

She asked that MSU take action so that Engler appears in Lansing within the next two weeks to be interviewed by investigators.

"We must lead from the top," Nessel wrote to Byrum. "The reluctance of the former interim president of the university to cooperatively participate in a law enforcement investigation into the largest sexual assault scandal in the history of higher education — yet happily sit courtside to watch the men's basketball team on multiple occasions — speaks volumes about allegations of a culture of indifference on campus." 

In a statement delivered through MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant, Byrum said she didn't know the AG's Office was still trying to interview Engler.

"Until receiving this letter, I was unaware that the Attorney General’s Office had been unable to secure a meeting with former Interim President John Engler,” Byrum said.  “I agree with the AG’s position that Engler should honor the request to meet and cooperate fully. The board will review Engler’s contract and determine what actions on our part will help facilitate an interview.” 

Trustee Brian Mosallam said MSU should no longer pay the legal bills of Engler, who resigned under pressure in January, unless he agrees to an interview.

"Engler needs to cooperate with AG Nessel or the board needs to pull his indemnification," Mosallam said.

Engler could not be immediately reached for comment. But his lawyer said, in the letter, that he doesn't deserve to be attacked.

"There can be no doubt that Larry Nassar’s conduct, as evidenced by his guilty plea and the sentences imposed, was appalling, criminal and some of the worst conduct that can occur to a student athlete — or any person for that matter,"  Waxman wrote.

"A vigorous, comprehensive investigation into such abhorrent behavior was warranted and justified. However, the fact that the underlying conduct involved unspeakable harms does not give the Attorney General’s Office and its agents the right to attack, manipulate and deceive innocent people, including Mr. Engler."

For more than a year, the board has been relying on the Attorney General's Office to get to the root of criminal behavior that led to decades of sexual abuse by Nassar, a former MSU sports doctor.

The board asked the Attorney General's Office, then led by Bill Schuette, to launch an investigation into the Nassar scandal in January 2018, as more than 200 women were testifying how he abused them during treatment for injuries. Handed three prison sentences, Nassar was essentially incarcerated for life. 

Special prosecutor William Forsyth said midway and at the end of his probe that MSU had been stonewalling the investigation, which led to criminal charges against three MSU officials, including former President Lou Anna Simon.

More recently, during an investigation update last month, Nessel said MSU has  "fought this office every step of the way."

According to Nessel's letter, Engler's interview is a key task that investigators need to complete before wrapping up the probe.

"This interview is important in several respects," Nessel wrote in her letter. "First, as interim President, Mr. Engler was hired to help stem the Nassar fallout. To do this, Mr. Engler publicly indicated that he implemented several policy and staffing changes designed to address previously identified deficiencies. These are relevant issues that fall within the very heart of our review."

Nessel sent former MSU General Counsel Bob Young a letter on Jan. 24, regarding the requested interview with Engler.

"After originally indicating that the university could not assist with facilitating his interview, we were advised that Mr. Engler would cooperate and we were directed to Mr. Engler's personal attorney, Seth Waxman, for purposes of scheduling," Nessel wrote. "Unfortunately, our interactions with Mr. Waxman have not been fruitful."

Nessel said officials in her office explained to Waxman that they would travel to Engler, but he needed to be available to interview in Michigan.

"Fairness is a paramount consideration when conducting a criminal
investigation and an individual who interviews in another state is subject to
different laws and processes for purposes of the interview," Nessel wrote. "For example, the laws in Washington, D.C., related to intentionally lying to a police officer in the course of an investigation are not as strong as in Michigan."

Additionally, Nessel wrote in her letter to Byrum, her authority to prosecute a
crime committed outside of the state is "severely limited."

Engler appeared in photos on social media with MSU donor Peter Secchia. Guerrant said Engler was at the games last weekend and on March 9 as a guest.

In her letter, Nessel noted sections of Engler's employment contract that requires that Engler "respond and provide information" regarding matters within his
knowledge even after his employment with the University has concluded.

"Thus, it appears that the University has ample legal authority to not only facilitate our
interview with Mr. Engler but to demand that he participate in it," Nessel wrote. 

Nessel also questioned in her letter documents that the university has withheld under attorney-client privilege. Nessel reported last month that MSU initially withheld 7,500 documents as privileged and it appears as though her office is not going to see 6,000 of those documents.

"During my February news conference, I again called upon the university to
waive the attorney-client privilege and release the more than 6,000 documents that
it has redacted or withheld," Nessel wrote. I have not received a response to my request."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

 

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