Nessel will close Nassar inquiry unless MSU releases 6,000 documents

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel will close her office's investigation into who at Michigan State University was aware of former university doctor Larry Nassar's sexual assaults of patients unless the university releases roughly 6,000 withheld documents.

Nessel acknowledged Thursday that she sent a letter to the college's Board of Trustees a day earlier, asking one last time for the board to release the documents so her team can review them. If the board doesn't agree, she said the investigation that began more than three years ago will end. The board is withholding the documents under attorney-client privilege.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

"MSU's refusal to comply with my request leaves me with no choice but to close this investigation in a manner that provides no real closure or justice to the people who deserve it," Nessel said. She added her office has exhausted all legal options.

The MSU board in early 2018 asked the Michigan Attorney General's Office, then under the leadership of Bill Schuette, to conduct an investigation at the height of the scandal involving Nassar to determine if anyone enabled him.

Nassar, the former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor, was charged with 10 counts of sexual assault in Ingham and Eaton counties as prosecutors argued he assaulted young women and girls under the guise of medical care over three decades. His crimes led to three prison sentences that will keep him in prison for the rest of his life. For its part, MSU reached an unprecedented $500 million settlement with more than 500 reported victims.

University officials has turned over thousands of documents to the attorney general's office, which led to charges against three now-former MSU officials, including former university president Lou Anna Simon. The attorney general's office has asked MSU numerous times to release the remaining 6,000 documents.

The trustees in June 2019 agreed at the urging of victims to conduct an independent investigation. But in September board chair Dianne Byrum said the board couldn't agree to proceed. Trustees Brianna Scott, Joel Ferguson, Melanie Foster and Byrum opposed the investigation, while Brian Mosallam, Dan Kelly, Kelly Tebay and Nancy Schlichting supported it. 

Mosallam and Ferguson left the board at the end of their terms. Schlichting resigned just 10 months after being appointed to the board over concerns the group was not committed to a thorough investigation of what led to the Nassar scandal or releasing the 6,000 documents.

Renee Knake Jefferson was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to replace Schlichting and Pat O’Keefe and Rema Vassar were elected last year. 

Since voters elected O'Keefe and Vassar recently, Nessel said she would wait until after the next board meeting on April 16 in hope of an agreement before she closes the investigation.

Vassar said she supports releasing the documents and believes she is not the only one.

"No one thinks we should be withhold anything," Vassar said. "It’s a part of repairing the image of the university and no one wants to withhold healing from a survivor."

She said she has never heard anyone say the documents shouldn't be released, but it's not clear why they haven't been turned over to the attorney general other than "outstanding issues that have to be resolved." 

Board chairwoman Dianne Byrum released a statement Thursday, saying: "The MSU Board of Trustees has received the letter from the attorney general’s office, and we plan to discuss the issue further in the coming weeks."

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault, was less optimistic.

"It's been years. And money still matters more than transparency and accountability," Denhollander tweeted Thursday. "AG asked MSU again yesterday for the 6,000 documents they withheld under privilege. MSU won't cooperate with law enforcement. Money still matters more."

Knake, an attorney, committed to reviewing the 6,000 documents and other records in MSU's possession but said in December there's no information in the documents that's not already public.

Nessel said countless hours have gone into reviewing documents, gathering testimony, building criminal cases and defending legal arguments in the investigation of MSU. That work resulted in charges against former MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine Dean William Strampel, former MSU head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages and Simon. Strampel and Klages served jail sentences. Nessel is appealing a judge's decision that led to Simon's charges being dismissed.

Nessel's office has asked for these documents to be released numerous times since any one of the documents could include a critical piece in the investigation of those who were aware of Nassar but did nothing, she said.

"I again urge the Board of Trustees to seriously consider my request and the message it will send (if) they deny this request," Nessel said. "Our public universities need to be leaders in all ways that matter."

Twitter: @kimberkoz