Knake, 4 other MSU trustees to review docs withheld from AG, make decision on release

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As early as next week, five of eight Michigan State University trustees will begin a personal review of 6,000 documents that have been withheld by the university from Attorney General Dana Nessel during her investigation of MSU's handling of complaints against serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar. 

The university has so far asserted attorney-client privilege in regard to the documents, a position survivors and advocates have said serves as an impediment to the university’s focus on transparency and cultural change. 

Amanda Thomashow, a survivor,  approaches the microphone to speak during the Michigan State Board of Trustees meeting on Friday.

One survivor speculated Friday that board members were refusing to release the documents in order to run out the statute of limitations clock and avoid any criminal culpability the documents might implicate. 

MSU’s newest board member, Renee Knake, announced at Friday’s board meeting that she would be reviewing the documents. 

MSU’s newest board member, Renee Knake, announced at Friday’s board meeting that she would be reviewing the 
 6,000 documents that have been withheld by the university from Attorney General Dana Nessel during her investigation of MSU's handling of complaints against serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar.

After the meeting, Trustees Dan Kelly, Brian Mosallam and Brianna Scott confirmed they would also be reviewing the documents. Kelly and Scott said Trustee Kelly Tebay also would be reviewing the privileged documents.

Tebay had announced at town hall meetings earlier this year that she planned to review the documents over the holidays, said Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for the university.

"General Counsel office had already been planning for that," when Knake and other trustees expressed the same interest, Guerrant said.

A previous effort to have a judicial appointee review the documents as part of an independent review was rejected by four board members, Scott and Trustees Dianne Byrum, Joel Ferguson and Melanie Foster. 

Kelly said, to his knowledge, no trustee has personally reviewed the documents yet, but have relied on lawyers to inform them if there was factual information that should be released. 

"If there is a way to provide as much transparency as possible, I’m open-minded to it and I continue to be," said Kelly, who noted trustees will have to go through training to access the documents. 

"These have been secured in a secure server, so we would have to go to East Lansing to review the documents." 

Trustees Tebay, Ferguson, Byrum and Foster did not immediately return a call for comment. 

Mosallam said the board could reconsider its position on release after reviewing the documents. 

“I want to read those documents so I can understand what’s in them,” he said. 

The Michigan State University Board of Trustees holds a meeting for the first time since the appointment of Renee Knake to replace resigned trustee Nancy Schlichting on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. From left are Vice Chair Dan Kelly, President Samuel L. Stanley, Trustee Dianne Byrum and Trustee Brian Mosallam.

The review will be “long and arduous,” perhaps taking weeks to months, Scott said in an email Friday.

“But we are committed to this process and will get it done,” she said.

Knake, a former MSU law professor appointed to a board vacancy Dec. 4, said Friday the university needed structural change to address the “crisis” revealed through the Nassar scandal and a recent Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct survey.

“When I see those materials with my own eyes, I will have an informed basis to make recommendations about how this should be handled," she said.

In a statement Friday, Nessel's office said the board's "new-found interest" in the files was welcome after more than a year of requests for the documents.

“However, as we have said before, law enforcement agencies do not rely on the subject of an investigation to determine what is relevant," said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for the department. "While we have no idea what the documents contain, not giving them to us obviously leads us to believe there is, in fact, something relevant to our investigation.”

Knake, who declined further comment after the meeting, was appointed to the board Dec. 4 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to replace Henry Ford Health System CEO Nancy Schlichting. Schlichting resigned from the board in October after a 10-month tenure, citing her frustration with the board and her inability to persuade her colleagues to let the truth come out about Nassar.

Students and survivors have argued the release of the documents is integral to the university’s commitment to transparency and cultural change on the East Lansing campus.

Public comment during the Friday meeting lasted more than 30 minutes, with much of it focused on the release of the documents and the need for an independent review of the university’s handling of the Nassar scandal.

"You have decided that institutional protectionism is worth more than the women and children harmed and worth more than everyone on your campus left at risk," said Sterling Riethman, who read a statement on behalf of herself, Rachael Denhollander and Sarah Klein, all of whom were assaulted by Nassar.

Amanda Thomashow, who reported Nassar in 2014 to the university's Title IX office, questioned whether the privileged documents implicated the board members who were present in 2014 when her report was filed.

“I think I know why you’re holding out,” Thomashow said Friday. She speculated that the board was running the statute of limitations clock to avoid any criminal responsibility the documents might imply. 

Ingham County District Judge Richard Ball reviewed the documents and decided the university properly asserted privilege, Byrum said, when asked about Thomashow’s statement after the meeting.  

Nonetheless, Byrum said the board “will have conversations” after hearing from Knake on the documents.

“The entire issue on the privileged documents has been one that we have had legitimate disagreements on,” Byrum said.

President Samuel Stanley, who took up his role at MSU in August, noted the university had conducted the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct survey to gauge the environment at MSU and made new hires for MSU’s Title IX program as part of its commitment to change.

"I believe we are assembling the right team for leading positive change at Michigan State University," Stanley said.

Among those who commented during the Friday meeting was Erika Davis, who filed a lawsuit last year against MSU alleging that she was 17 and seeking treatment for an injury when Nassar drugged her, raped her and filmed the assault.

Survivor Erika Davis, who filed a lawsuit last year against MSU, said, “I am here now unwilling to suffer in silence any longer yet you have turned your back on me and hundreds of other young girls and women once again.”

She alleged that former Trustee George Perles, who was MSU's head football coach and athletic director in the early 1990s, intervened and covered it up when approached by Davis' coach, Martha Ludwig.

“I am here now unwilling to suffer in silence any longer yet you have turned your back on me and hundreds of other young girls and women once again,” Davis said.

Davis begged the board to provide answers as to why they were still denying her claims given what they know of Nassar. She gave two minutes of her three-minute comment period for trustees to answer, but they remained silent while several individuals in the audience rose in support of Davis.

Perles was 84 last year when he stepped down as a trustee because of health issues, to be replaced by Schlichting. He has denied the suit's allegations against him in a statement issued by his lawyer.

An investigative report from former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office said investigators found no information to corroborate allegations against Perles.

It's not custom for board members to engage in question and answer during a meeting, Byrum said after the meeting. But Kelly noted during the board’s comment period that board members tended to refrain from commenting on pending litigation.

“When someone comes to the podium who has a pending litigated matter against the university I believe as a lawyer that the appropriate thing is not to respond or make comment,” said Kelly, who noted that he instead would trust the judicial process.

“It’s very difficult sometimes," he said. "Not only do I want to make comment, I want to scream.”

Kelly, who joined the board in 2017, said he doesn’t believe any of the board members did anything wrong in 2014, but there were legitimate disagreements about the independent review and release of documents.

"That was disagreed with by four board members," said Kelly, who supported the independent review. "That is an honest disagreement. In my belief, it is not based on board members trying to hide facts or keep the truth from the public."