MSU stands by decision to withhold documents from AG related to Nassar

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan State University Board of Trustees on Friday stood by its decision to withhold more than 6,000 documents involving former sports doctor Larry Nassar from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, citing attorney-client privilege and hopes that victims and their allies could "move forward."

The eight-member board did not take a vote on the withholding of documents, an issue that emerged during a state investigation of MSU examining how serial predator Nassar could prey on young women and girls for decades undetected.

But most trustees addressed the withholding of the documents after an MSU lawyer wrote to Nessel last month and said the university would not release them since they fell under attorney-client privilege. The decision came after Nessel said she would close the attorney general's investigation and widespread pressure mounted on the university to waive private advice lawyers gave to MSU amid the scandal.

Trustees' comments came after several people spoke during the public portion of the meeting, slamming them and demanding that each board member reveal where he or she stood on the issue.

"You all talk about the heinous crimes of Larry Nassar, how your heart breaks for the survivors," said MSU student Sydney Connors. "If you don't release these documents, as far as my peers and I are concerned, you have allied yourself with him." 

Board vice chair Dan Kelly noted that he is an attorney and views attorney-client privilege as an important aspect of getting legal advice.

"I don't view this just simply as a release of documents, as if these documents contain secrets or things that might make the board or the university look bad," said Kelly, a Republican who specializes in governmental, municipal and labor law at his Auburn Hills firm. "They have already been determined by an independent judge to be privileged materials and not involving factual disclosures.

"It breaks my heart to hear survivors see it differently," Kelly continued. "I just hope we can respectfully disagree on this issue and move forward."

Some board members, including Democratic trustees Kelly Tebay and Rema Vassar, said they stood by their decision to seek the release of the documents.

"I still think the documents should be released," said Vassar, an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, after the meeting.

The documents have been at issue for three years after the Board of Trustees asked former Attorney General Bill Schuette's office to investigate MSU in relation to Nassar at the height of the scandal in 2018.

Michigan State promised cooperation when it asked the attorney general for an investigation so it could understand how Nassar flourished for decades as a staff doctor who sexually assaulted patients under the guise of medical treatment.

MSU turned over more than a half-million documents but withheld 6,000 under attorney-client privilege.

There was never a vote to withhold the documents, but trustees agreed privately to release the documents after MSU reached settlements with insurers covering the costs of the $500 million settlement MSU reached with Nassar's victims.

MSU has 12 carriers providing insurance related to the situation, said spokeswoman Emily Guerrant. Of those, three are still in court.

The 6,000 documents became a political issue during the statewide board election races. Many candidates who sought a seat on the MSU board said the documents should be released. 

"Many of you relied on the support and campaign help of the students you now betray to be in the position you are now to hear me to do the damn job we hired you to do, and that's pathetic," Connors said.

Nassar's victims and advocates have demanded that the university release the documents to demonstrate transparency.

Tebay choked up as she addressed her comments to victims. 

"I am on your side, but I am not a dictator and I do not make decisions on my own and these are certainly not easy things," she said. "I would appreciate if you would understand that I am fighting for you."

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 more than two decades.

His convictions led to three prison sentences that will keep him incarcerated for the rest of his life. MSU subsequently reached an unprecedented $500 million settlement with more than 500 reported victims.

University officials turned over thousands of documents to the Attorney General's office, which led to charges against three now-former MSU officials, including ex-university President Lou Anna Simon.

Twitter: @kimberkoz