Denhollander presses MSU leader for probe: 'It's either action or silence'

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse challenged Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley on Monday to initiate an internal investigation into the university's handling of the scandal, saying "it's either action or silence."

Rachael Denhollander, along with two other victims, made the call in a joint statement after MSU trustees were unable Friday to agree on the scope of an inquiry into how Nassar was able to sexually assault girls and young women over more than two decades as a university sports doctor.

Many victims had lobbied for an independent investigation since the scandal began unfolding three years ago this month. Such an inquiry was approved by the MSU trustees in June, but board chair Dianne Byrum announced Friday there was a split on the board on the scope of the investigation, so it would not move forward at this time.

Denhollander and two other former gymnasts, Sterling Riethman and Sarah Klein, hailed the support of trustees Brian Mosallam, Dan Kelly, Kelly Tebay and Nancy Schlichting for an independent investigation but said they were "deeply disappointed and disgusted once again" with trustees Byrum, Brianna Scott, Joel Ferguson and Melanie Foster.

"If this board will not act, it is time for you President Stanley to let us all know where you stand — hopefully it’s with the moral conviction to finally learn the truth about the culture that and individuals who allowed Larry Nassar’s sexual misconduct to go unabated for decades on MSU’s campus," the statement said. 

Rachael Denhollander, center, in December 2017 at a press conference.

Stanley, along with trustees and MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant, could not be immediately reached for comment. 

During the board of trustees meeting last week, Stanley said healing the university would be one of his highest priorities. 

"I hope you will find my administration is committed to taking the actions and to making the changes necessary to address the weaknesses and failures of the system and of people who, intentionally or not, failed to address the root causes of this abuse," Stanley said. "I know my words are not enough, and that you will, rightly, judge us by our actions."

In a tweet responding to MSU associate sociology professor Stephanie Nawyn, Klein and Reclaim MSU, Scott said she supported an independent investigation.

"However, I requested a clear understanding of whether a 'work around' on the privilege issue was possible prior to signing the contract with the firm," she tweeted. "If it wasn't, then my opinion was that the report would not be supported by the Survivors and would be a dereliction of my fiscal fiduciary obligations to the University."

Scott, a lawyer, was referring to about 6,300 pages of documents for the investigation 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.

Denhollander, also a lawyer, called Scott's response "nonsense."

"The special master process is a common process used to obtain all factual information from a privileged document," Denhollander wrote in a message to The Detroit News. "We were not suggesting something novel. Moreover, attorneys for MSU informed board members more than a month ago that they believed this could be used, and the firm we recommended met via phone with specific trustees to explain the process. "

Denhollander noted that Mosallam, Kelly, Tebay and Schlichting were in favor of this process.

"The survivor committee specifically asked the board to sign the engagement letter and act," Denhollander said. "Trustees Byrum, Scott, Ferguson and Foster refused. Period."

In a late-night email, Guerrant said MSU's General Counsel’s Office "did not feel the special master process was a viable option if the intent was to maintain privilege."

"Yes, it was discussed; but our legal team never advised the board that it could be used and still maintain privilege," Guerrant said. 

While Stanley has scheduled meetings with victims this fall, Denhollander, Riethman and Klein said that more meetings and listening sessions are not enough.

"Meetings with survivors, absent constructive action to learn the truth, is nothing more than empty steps taken that distract from the need for real change," the statement said. "Survivors do not need more empty statements and listening sessions. We need action. An impasse between those who wish to protect the status quo and refuse accountability and transparency, and those who are ready to move forward towards what is right, has been reached. Choosing not to act is to choose a side. It's either action or silence."

During Friday's board meeting, Byrum announced that consensus could not be reached on the scale of the independent investigation that the board agreed to launch in June.

She made the announcement after citing a federal report's findings "highlight some of the failures and weaknesses that we need to be accountable for." 

Pressed during a discussion with reporters afterward, Byrum explained why the investigation would not move forward.

Host Danica Patrick joins Sarah Klein, Tiffany Thomas Lopez, Aly Raisman and other "sister survivors" of Larry Nassar's sexual abuse who were recipients of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at "The 2018 ESPYS."

"There was a split on the board ... what are we going to do with another investigation that has not already been done?" Byrum said.

Over the weekend, Klein sent a letter to the four trustees who did not support the investigation, calling it "a transparent cover-up to protect each of you."

"The board unanimously committed months ago to an independent investigation," Klein wrote. "You asked me and my a number of my sisters to assist the board in this process. We agreed because we truly wanted to fix the culture at MSU. We devoted months of our time to identify, interview, vet and hire a distinguished international law firm to get the full truth of what happened with Nassar and who was ultimately responsible."

Sterling Riethman said in a statement to The Detroit News that Michigan State's decision not to pursue an independent investigation shows it considers the trauma suffered by Larry Nassar's victims "worthless."

Riethman also made a statement to The News over the weekend.

"Rachael, Sarah, myself, and many others along the way have dedicated months of our lives to helping MSU take steps to correct the incredibly dangerous culture that thrives there," she said. "Killing this investigation without warning, without consultation, and without any regard for the message it sends to survivors is a perfect sign of what this board thinks of our dark history: worthless."