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Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Victims and advocates are seeking the truth about the University of Michigan's response to the alleged sexual assaults involving the late Dr. Robert E. Anderson, but it's unclear when or if it will happen.

Activists from UM and Michigan State University called on Attorney General Dana Nessel this week to do an independent investigation of happened at UM that allowed Anderson, a longtime university doctor, to allegedly sexually assault male patients.

Mark Schlissel

Nessel said Thursday she would need the university to commit to waiving privilege before any independent investigation could begin.UM regents did not respond to requests for comment but spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen issued a statement.

"Right now, we are focused on ensuring a thorough and independent investigation with an external firm," she said. "Protecting the confidentiality of survivors and witnesses is paramount. We will not do anything that would jeopardize confidentiality or discourage people from coming forward to report misconduct."

"As we've said previously," Broekhuizen continued, "we have met with survivors, mental health professionals, doctors and believe we are overseeing a process that will ultimately serve as the best course of action for survivors and the University community."

Meanwhile, UM has not released its contract with Steptoe & Johnson, the law firm it hired to investigate the Anderson case. The Detroit News filed a Freedom of Information requeston Feb. 19for the contract, which UM had not fulfilled as of Friday.

But another contract between UM and a law firm investigating Provost Martin Philbert, who is also accused of sexual misconduct, shows how the university handles independent investigations.

"Our work will be subject to the attorney-client privilege, other applicable privileges and the work product doctrine,” says the Jan. 30 contract between WilmerHale and the University of Michigan.

Asked about this clause on Feb. 14, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the contract language was customary but that the university would reveal the results of the Philbert investigation. He also committed to transparency with any investigation involving Anderson.

"The standard practice with internal investigations is for them to be conducted under attorney-client privilege," Fitzgerald said. "Once the investigation is complete, the university will share information publicly in a manner that respects the privacy and confidentiality of witnesses."

Activists said UM is acting a lot like MSU, which has faced fierce criticism for its response to the scandal involving the now-imprisoned Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted female athletes for decades.

"Sounds very MSU," said Trinea Gonczar, one of the women who spoke against Nassar and helped convict him.

Sarah Klein, an attorney, activist and survivor who also helped take down Nassar, agreed, saying UM's statement is reminiscent of MSU's communications.

"In other words, we will investigate ourselves and consult with our legal team before sharing the carefully curated narrative that will best limit our liability," she said. "This smells of the same old, 'protect our brand and lawyer up' approach taken by MSU. If that is their stance, they better be ready for the fight of a lifetime, because that is exactly where this will head." 

John Manly, an attorney who represented scores of Nassar victims and helped them land a historic $500 million settlement, with MSU, said a contract involving attorney-client privilege will never result in the truth.

"It's only standard to hide behind the attorney-client privilege when you don't intend to tell the truth," said Manly. "That's not a real investigation. That's a PR tactic used frequently by the Catholic hierarchy to hide the truth."

Sexual abuse allegations emerged two weeks ago against Anderson, who was head of the University Health Service and the team doctor for the Athletic Department between 1968-2003.

UM has offered free counseling for victims and a hotline for them to call. Broekhuizen said Friday that UM had received 140 unique complaints, most of them through the hotline.

On Friday, UM issued a statement that apologizedagain for the alleged sexual assaults by Anderson but didn't address a key issue raised by victims and advocates seeking the truth.

"We are sorry for the pain caused by the failures of our beloved University," said the statement, attributed to UM President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents. "The allegations that have surfaced sadden and disgust us.

"We are profoundly grateful to our courageous alumni who have stepped forward to hold our University accountable," said the statement. "We stand committed to the thorough, independent and transparent investigation launched by an external firm into the disgraceful behavior that has been reported."

The apology is the second from UM regarding Anderson,who allegedly sexually assaulted athletes, students and other patients.

It follows public statements this week from several men who allege Anderson abused them and from several women who were sexually assaulted by Nassar, who is in prison for his crimes. Former Attorney General Mike Cox, now in private practice, filed the first nine lawsuits against the university from Anderson's accusers and said more are coming.

All have demanded transparency and accountability regarding Anderson.

Many Nassar victims at a press conference Thursday recalled the scandal at MSU, which has withheld 6,000 documents from state investigators, claiming attorney-client privilege.

The Nassar survivors urged UM not to follow the same course and asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate. 

Victims, attorneys and other advocates involved in the Nassar scandal have been fighting for years to find out what really happened at MSU that allowed him to sexually assault girls and women for decades under the guise of medical care.

MSU initially hired the law firm of former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to conduct an investigation into the Nassar scandal. But the firm's contract with MSU showed the university's goal in authorizing the inquiry was to shield itself from legal liability.

MSU officials then asked the Michigan Attorney General's office to launch an independent investigation. Under then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, the inquiry resulted in criminal charges against several high-ranking officials, including former President Lou Ann Simon, former MSU medical school dean William Strampel and former head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages. Strampel and Klages were convicted. Simon still awaits a trial.

The Schuette-led investigation into MSU also led to a voluminous public report issued in December 2018 by special independent counsel William Forsyth. At the time, he said the truth about what happened at MSU might never fully be known because the university had repeatedly stonewalled investigators.

Nessel's office took over the investigation in January 2019 and has repeatedly called on MSU to release the 6,000 withheld documents.