MSU case prods Calley push for new independent counsel

Jonathan Oosting Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing – Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is expected Friday to call on the Michigan Legislature to create a new class of independent special prosecutor in state law, citing potential conflicts of interest in cases like Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation of Michigan State University.

Schuette on Saturday announced that retired Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth is leading the probe into MSU’s handling of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal, promising a thorough investigation “from the president’s office down.”

But Calley, a Portland Republican who is running for governor and competing against Schuette for the GOP nomination, said Thursday that special prosecutors appointed by the attorney general – such as Forsyth – are “not at all independent, and that is problematic.”

Calley will ask legislators to change state law to allow courts to appoint independent special prosecutors to investigate situations like the scandal at MSU. He said he wants to see that change as soon as possible.

“This case is rife with potential conflicts,” Calley told The Detroit News. “Relationships, ties, connections do affect things. Having a truly independent review is important. It does not inspire confidence the way things transpired this week.”

Forsyth is known as a tough, fair-minded attorney, according to people who know him. But critics have questioned his impartiality because his 2016 retirement party was partially sponsored by MSU booster Peter Secchia, who is also a major GOP donor.

The party was a fundraiser for Silent Observers, a non-profit that relies on donors to gather anonymous tips to help police solve crimes, said program director Chris Cameron, who added that “there is no conflict” because the organization lined up all the sponsors.

Schuette’s office has fought criticism of the investigation, calling Forsyth an “honest and quality prosecutor who will get the job done.”

“His goal is to find the truth and he will, thoroughly and completely in an unbiased way,” spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said Tuesday.

Interim MSU President John Engler, the former governor unanimously selected for the post Wednesday by the MSU Board of Trustees, is also connected to MSU boosters such Secchia. Engler joined the board of Universal Forest Products Inc., the company Secchia led, in 2003.

Secchia stirred controversy last week by saying parents who feel their children would be unsafe at MSU could send them elsewhere since the university has a long waiting list.

Stu Sandler, head of a super political action committee supporting Schuette for governor, accused Calley of injecting politics into the MSU investigation, noting that the State Police under Calley’s own administration are working with the Attorney General’s Office on the case.

“This is the second law enforcement investigation that Brian Calley is trying to politicize,” Sandler said, referencing Calley’s past criticism of Schuette’s Flint water crisis investigation as politically motivated. “He has no law enforcement background. He should just stay out of it.”

Calley’s call for a independent special prosecutor comes amid continued criticism of MSU trustees, who remain under fire over the Nassar scandal after former President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis resigned last week.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, is among those continuing to call on the full eight-member board to resign. He said Thursday impeachment proceedings are “off the table” because they would require proof of “unlawful conduct.”

Leonard declined to say whether he thinks Snyder should launch a formal inquiry into possible neglect of duty or malfeasance by trustees. Snyder’s office said last week action against MSU leadership was “under review.”

If Snyder did force any members out of office, he could appoint a replacement. MSU Board Chairman Brian Breslin works for the governor as his manager of appointments and helps Snyder make picks for a variety of open positions.

Leonard told reporters he thinks Engler was a good choice to lead MSU and thinks criticism over the pick is “very unfortunate.” Still, he said, trustees should step down.

“Is there any of them right now that in good faith can travel this country or travel across the globe, sit down across from them, and be taken credibly by them as it relates to representing the university?” Leonard said. “I believe that answer is no.”

Separately, Republican state Rep. Jim Lower of Cedar lake on Thursday proposed a constitutional amendment that would abolish governing boards at MSU, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan and have the state’s next governor replace the elected members.

The joint resolution would also dissolve and replace elected State Board of Education members who have direct supervisory duties involving K-12 schools.

Lower’s proposed amendment would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature followed by statewide approval by voters in November. It would abolish boards at three major state universities – the only three nominated by political parties and then elected by statewide voters – and the Board of Education on Dec. 31.

On the first day of 2019, Michigan’s next governor would appoint new members to staggered terms. The appointments would be subject to review by the Michigan Senate.

“I believe voters should have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not the current system is working,” Lower said in a statement. “We need to place this on the ballot this year.”

Two MSU trustee positions are up for election this year, but incumbents Breslin and Mitch Lyons have said they are not seeking re-election. Calley said Thursday he would like to see a Nassar abuse survivor on the board and would help those that run for the seats.

First-term Rep. Lower said he has long considered the nomination and election process for the state and university boards to be “problematic.” Nominees are selected at political party conventions and are not often well known by voters who see their names on the general election ballot.

“This situation, coupled with eight-year terms, leads to very little accountability and a lack of thorough vetting,” Lower said.

Rep. Adam Zemke, an Ann Arbor Democrat and vice chairman of the House Education Committee, said he is open to ideas to increase accountability for university boards but does not think gubernatorial appointments would accomplish the goal.

“I don’t see how we would be increasing accountability by taking away the voters’ direct voice in the process,” Zemke said.

Schuette, in his campaign for governor, called for a similar constitutional change this week, but Lower’s resolution proposes going further by also giving the governor appointment power for the State Board of Education, as recommended last year by a commission appointed by term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

Speaker Leonard is not committed to taking up Lower’s proposal. He has tasked committee chairs with developing reform proposals in response to the MSU scandal and intends to let them “do their work and build the best proposals they can,” said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

“I think there’s going to be several ideas for potential reforms,” he said.

Columnist Daniel Howes contributed

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