MSU to launch independent investigation into Nassar scandal

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — More than two and a half years after victims of Larry Nassar started calling for an independent probe of Michigan State University, the school will hire an outside firm to examine the climate that allowed the former sports doctor to prey on young women.

The investigation, unanimously approved Friday by the MSU Board of Trustees, differs from an ongoing probe by the Michigan Attorney General's Office because it will look at actions not considered criminal. It will review what created a culture at MSU that allowed the serial pedophile to sexually abuse undetected for decades.

Larry Nassar

The investigation will be aimed at helping the Board of Trustees to identify who knew what about Nassar, how he was able to abuse and identify actions that might have involved neglect, violations of university protocol or other behaviors that need to be addressed.

Findings from the investigation — hailed by some victims but criticized by Attorney General Dana Nessel — will be made available to the public.

"Today is a monumental occasion in MSU history," said trustee Brian Mosallam, who championed the independent probe at a meeting Friday. "Today, this board, together as one, has decided to rip off the band-aid and authorize an independent investigation regarding MSU's handling of Larry Nassar's sexual misconduct ... so together we can say never again."

The independent investigation will be conducted by McDermott, Will and Emory, a law/investigative firm with locations around the world. It is not yet known the scope, how much it will cost or when it will be completed since Michigan State is still negotiating a contract, said MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant.

However, university officials say they still will not release about 6,300 of documents for the investigation. In a previous move that spawned controversy and later involved a judge, MSU deemed those documents private as part of attorney-client privilege and refused to release them to the Attorney General's Office.

The Attorney General's Office has been steeped in a criminal probe of MSU for more than a year. That has led to charges against three top university officials, including former President Lou Anna Simon.

Many on Friday celebrated the independent investigation because victims and their allies have been calling for an independent firm to offer a deeper, unbiased explanation of what went wrong at MSU while Nassar was assaulting patients under the guise of medical treatment.

Rachael Denhollander, who was part of the process that led to the independent investigation, said the ongoing criminal probe by the Michigan Attorney General's Office remains an important piece of the work being done in the wake of Nassar.

But, she said, it's "a very small fraction of what went wrong at MSU."

"We need to do a full review," said Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, during a telephone interview. "You can't fix what you haven't diagnosed. MSU needs to find out what went wrong and then apologize, identify the failures, admit the failures and make them right."

Denhollander — along with two other women abused by Nassar, former gymnasts Sterling Riethman and Sarah Klein — gave input in the process that led to the independent investigation, the first time the university consulted with victims.

But the move got swift pushback from Nessel.

Nessel's office is in the midst of the ongoing probe of MSU that it picked up following a report by Special Prosecutor William Forsyth, who was tasked by then-Attorney General Bill Schuette.

The investigation has involved a review of about 124,000 documents turned over by MSU. But both Nessel's and Schuette's offices called out MSU for withholding the 6,300 documents it has deemed private under attorney-client privilege.

“Michigan State University lacks the credibility necessary to conduct a legitimate investigation," Nessel said in a statement.

MSU also began an investigation with former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s law firm, which the university hired in September 2016. The university said at the time it hired the firm to do that independent investigation but a contract later showed that Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP was hired to shield the university from legal liability.

"Over the past few years, it has launched several investigations, including an ‘independent investigation’ conducted by Patrick Fitzgerald in 2016," Nessel said. "Unsurprisingly, it has cleared its employees of culpability each time.

"There is only one way for MSU to regain the public’s trust, and that is to waive its privilege and disclose all information in its possession about Larry Nassar to the Department of Attorney General. In other words, the university should leave the job of investigating to the professionals.” 

Reclaim MSU, a reform group at the university, added that releasing the privileged documents is key to the healing at MSU.

"Until MSU trustees waive privilege and cooperate with the attorney general, they cannot regain public trust,"  the group said.

But Denhollander  said while she appreciates Nessel, "she was not involved in this process and does not know what has been negotiated."

"No one is backing off the push to waive privilege, but we need this," Denhollander said on Twitter. "I have worked directly with the board, and I support this step."

After the meeting Friday, MSU board Chairwoman Dianne Byrum and Vice Chairman Dan Kelly responded to media questions about the independent investigation and the privileged documents.

"The privileged information is not going to be released, and the board has been very clear on that for a number of months," Byrum said. "There is a body of factual information, and the firm will be allowed access to all of the information. Privilege is not being waived. We've been consistent on that."

Kelly, a lawyer, added the privileged information includes opinions of MSU's attorneys.

"This firm will have full access to all of the facts, the documents, they will arrive at their own opinions," Kelly said. "They will, quite frankly, don't need the privileged information to ask them to do what we are asking them to do."

Denhollander said many firms were vetted by the trustees' Committee on Audit, Risk and Compliance, and her fellow gymnasts working with them. The one selected is regarded as one of the top ethics and compliance firms in the world. The two lead investigators have done a wealth of prosecutorial work, specifically involving sex crimes.

Additionally, Denhollander said, the firm emphasized transparency, accountability, working with victims and, "the importance the of getting to the truth."

The hope is that such a probe could satisfy demands for a full accounting while protecting sensitive information from public dissemination — similar to how GM resolved the crisis surrounding faulty ignition switches that was blamed for causing at least 12 deaths.

During the meeting, Mosallam thanked many who helped make the move a reality and said if it not for Kelly's leadership this would not have gotten done. He also thanked Denhollander and victims Sterling Riethman and Sarah Klein for assisting board members.

"The road getting here was not easy," Mosallam said.