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Nessel suspends Nassar investigation at Michigan State

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Attorney General Dana Nessel has suspended its investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of complaints against serial molester Larry Nassar, nearly two years after the investigation began under her predecessor, former Attorney General Bill Schuette. 

The investigation is suspended until or unless the MSU Board of Trustees releases thousands of privileged documents it has withheld or former interim President John Engler agrees to an interview, according to Nessel's spokeswoman, Kelly Rossman-McKinney. 

Nessel followed with a statement Wednesday saying she was still committed to the investigation, but the parties had reached an "impasse" and her office would continue to push for the release of documents that had been deemed privileged by university attorneys and a district judge. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel has suspended has reached an "impasse" in its investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of complaints against serial molester Larry Nassar

University officials in a statement Tuesday said they appreciated the time and work invested into the investigation and vouched their cooperation with the attorney general's review. 

"In addition to the attorney general’s investigation, MSU has also been investigated and reviewed by more than a dozen other entities and units of government," said Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for the university. "In all cases, we have cooperated with each and every inquiry."  

Guerrant was unable Tuesday to produce a comprehensive list of those investigations and reviews but noted they included reviews conducted by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the NCAA, the Michigan House of Representatives, the U.S. Congressional Olympic Oversight Committee, and the federal Department of Health and Human Services. 

Additionally, Michigan State has invested significantly in "education and prevention efforts to make sure this can never happen again," Guerrant said. "Our hearts are with the survivors and their families as they continue their healing as well." 

Michigan State has repeatedly prioritized "money and fear of liability over people" and continues to do so by withholding privileged documents from the Attorney General's Office, said Rachael Denhollander, who was one of the first women to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse in 2016. 

"We have a publicly funded entity that is run with taxpayer dollars that is not accountable to the taxpayers," she said. "Millions of taxpayer dollars and they’re even shunning a law enforcement agency."

Denhollander said she was grateful for the attorney general's investigation, but an internal review would help to root out a culture problem on campus that goes beyond Nassar. 

Four board members — Trustee Dianne Byrum, Brianna Scott, Joel Ferguson and Melanie Foster — voted against an independent review that would have included the appointment of a special master to review the privileged documents. 

"There are predators on that campus who are watching the board send the message that it doesn’t matter," Denhollander said. "Everyone is at risk because of the board's continual choice to prioritize money over people.”

Schuette, a Republican, announced the investigation in late January 2018, shortly after more than 150 women and girls gave victim impact statements during the Ingham County sentencing of Nassar, who is serving a de facto life prison term.

His announcement came several days after the MSU Board of Trustees requested the attorney general to investigate the university's handling of the incident, noting in a letter that Schuette's review could "resolve the questions in a way that the victims, their families and the public will deem satisfactory."

Three MSU officials were charged as a result of the investigation led by special prosecutor William Forsyth, including former School of Medicine Dean William Strampel, former gymnastics coach Kathie Klages and former MSU president Lou Anna Simon. 

Strampel was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail earlier this year, but the cases against Klages and Simon continue. 

Before he left the investigative team in December 2018, Forsyth said MSU had repeatedly stonewalled investigators and was more concerned about financial and legal considerations than victims and the public interest. 

He said MSU needed a "top-down culture change" before people started to trust any policies the university put in place in the wake of the Nassar scandal. 

"Both then and now, MSU has fostered a culture of indifference toward sexual assault, motivated by its desire to protect its reputation," Forsyth's 2018 report said.

The Attorney General's Office was allocated $1 million for the investigation by the Legislature and has spent nearly three-quarters of that allocation, Christina Grossi, chief of operations for the department, told media Monday.

Besides continuing the prosecutions of Strampel, Klages and Simon, Nessel this year has sought the documents withheld by the MSU Board of Trustees and ruled privileged by a district judge. She also sought an interview with Engler, who took Simon’s place after she resigned in January 2018. 

Engler, a Republican former governor, resigned from the university in January 2019 and was replaced this summer by President Samuel Stanley. Engler has so far failed to cooperate with requests for an interview, according to the office of the Democratic attorney general. 

Meanwhile, five of the eight trustees on MSU’s board announced earlier this month that they would review the 6,000 withheld documents for themselves and potentially reconsider the decision to withhold those documents. 

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.

Board chairwoman Byrum and four other trustees did not immediately return requests for comment Tuesday. Trustee Joel Ferguson declined comment.

Trustee Dan Kelly said he started to review the documents last week in Lansing, a process he expects to take some time. He described it as an "audited review" that allows trustees to search through the documents. 

"I think between myself and the other board members who review it, we should be able to get through all of the documents,” he said.

New Trustee Renee Knake also will be reviewing the documents. 

"I respect the attorney general greatly, and I am only at the beginning of my review of the documents, which is a process that may take some time," she said in a statement. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com