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Nessel to UM: Waive privilege so we can investigate sex abuse claims

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Attorney General Dana Nessel said Thursday she will not investigate the University of Michigan’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against a longtime athletic doctor unless and until the university makes a binding commitment to waive attorney-client privilege.

The condition comes as a similar investigation of Michigan State University’s handling of allegations against serial pedophile Larry Nassar was stalled by roughly 6,000 documents that the university withheld from review under attorney client privilege.

Nessel will not investigate the University of Michigan’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against a longtime athletic doctor unless and until the university waives attorney client privilege.

Without UM's "complete transparency and full cooperation," Nessel said, her office would be unable to conduct a thorough investigation. 

"When you conduct an investigation, you want to know that you haven’t left any stone unturned," she said. "And what we discovered with MSU was there was no way to do that without them waiving privilege. So you’re getting half-truths.”

Nessel’s office, which is in the midst of a statewide investigation into clergy abuse, also would need additional funding from the Legislature to take up a separate investigation at UM, Nessel said.

If those conditions were met, Nessel said she would be willing to commence an investigation at the Ann Arbor university.

"Of course, you want to hold people accountable who should be held accountable but it's more than that," she said. "It's about finding out what went wrong so it never, ever happens again.”

UM did not immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment in response to Nessel's remarks.

Dr. Robert E. Anderson, who died in 2008, worked for the university from 1968 to 2003, first as the director of the University Health Service and then as team physician for the UM Athletic Department.

Dozens of former athletes and students have come forward in recent days to allege the doctor of sexual misconduct and the university of failing to protect them.

The first to speak publicly was Robert Julian Stone, a California man who told The Detroit News for a story published last week that Anderson had abused him during an exam in June 1971. Last August, Stone sent UM sent school officials an essay he wrote, "My Michigan Me-too Moment, 1971."

Nessel's insistence on UM relinquishing privilege is equivalent to "kicking the can down the road" unless the university complies, Stone said. 

"This would be better for the victims but it requires the university to step away from defensive mode and surrender to transparency," he said. "That’s the challenge." 

UM is facing numerous lawsuits from former athletes who said the university failed to protect from them sexual abuse by Anderson. The lawsuits say UM fired him in 1979 after receiving several complaints about Anderson, then moved the doctor to the Athletic Department.

Nessel, a UM grad, said the allegations were disturbing.

“It’s very upsetting. It’s very sad. I have so much pride in all of our public universities in the state of Michigan.”

Lawyers for some of the athletes filing suits called Thursday for Nessel to open an investigation into the university. Among those calling for the investigation was John Manly, one of the lead attorneys in the civil suit filed by Nassar survivors against MSU. 

It’s clear Nessel is sending a message to UM in calling for the university to waive privilege, Manly said. 

“They have got a choice to make very quickly," he said. “If they go the Michigan State path … it’s the end of this university as we know it."

Former Attorney General Mike Cox and lawyer David Shea had filed seven federal lawsuits against the university as of Thursday and planned to file more on Friday. 

Cox called Nessel's position "very shrewd," as it forces UM to decide publicly between transparency or further secrecy.

"They want to have it both ways — say they are for transparency after a 40-year cover-up that runs up to today — while lawyering up to hide the truth from the survivors and the public," Cox said in an email. "And AG Nessel can always decide to open an investigation later. In the meantime, we are going to fight for the survivors to uncover the truth that UM won’t disclose.” 

Christine Ferretti contributed.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com