Blanchard’s ties to law firm, MSU raise conflict fears

Melissa Nann Burke Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Former Gov. Jim Blanchard’s emerging role at Michigan State University amid fallout from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal has raised fears among some Michigan congressional lawmakers that it creates at least the perception of a conflict of interest.

That’s because Blanchard and the global law firm of which he is partner, DLA Piper, will be providing counsel on government affairs to MSU that would include advising on the university’s response to a growing number of congressional probes. MSU Interim President John Engler, the Republican former governor, has also said he’ll tap Blanchard as an adviser.

The legal counsel arrangement has raised questions about whether the Piper firm or Blanchard, a two-term governor of Michigan and Democratic former congressman, would benefit financially from the congressional investigations.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, said Nassar victims and the university community deserve an independent investigation with “no politics associated with it.” She had called for an interim leader at MSU from outside Michigan.

“You’re having to ask the question of whether Jim Blanchard’s law firm is making money on the investigation,” said Dingell, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that’s looking into the Nassar scandal.

“The Michigan State community needs to have somebody who is strong, independent and non-political. No questions like this should come up ever.”

U.S. House and Senate committees have launched inquiries into sexual abuse within the U.S. gymnastics program and Michigan State University in recent weeks. They follow Nassar’s sentencing in Michigan for sexual misconduct crimes resulting in a minimum of 80 years in prison.

Investigators have requested documents, communications and formal responses from MSU and others regarding their handling of complaints involving Nassar, a former MSU sports doctor whose abuse spanned two decades and involved more than 200 young female athletes.

Blanchard said Thursday that Engler has asked his law firm to serve as Washington counsel, though a contract has not been signed.

Blanchard says there’s no conflict of interest because he has no title or official role at MSU.

“We’re happy to help,” Blanchard told The Detroit News. “The bottom line is if I had a formal position with the university, if I was a named officer or part of the administration, I don’t think there’s any way we could be hiring my firm, no. But I don’t have that, nor have I been offered that.”

Engler spokesman John Truscott confirmed that Blanchard and his firm will be helping MSU with government affairs and said they’ve already started — even without a contract. Truscott also sees no conflict.

“When the committees ask for material and responses, there is no politics in the response. We’re just going to give it to them,” Truscott said.

But Rep. Mike Bishop, a Rochester Republican whose district includes MSU, said the arrangement with Blanchard’s firm could pose the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“There’s a way they can do that without having a professional conflict,” said Bishop, a lawyer by trade.

“By pure appearance, I would advise the university not to allow that to happen. I think it’s important that this in every way shape or form — even the appearance — has to be pure as the driven snow. We all have to make sure we’re on the same page for the same purpose to minimize the side shows as much as possible and any possible controversy.”

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, said if it’s a concern, Blanchard’s law firm could erect a communications wall to guard against conflicts of interest.

“I have no knee-jerk reaction that somehow Gov. Blanchard is going to manipulate things to create more business for his law firm,” Mitchell said. “I think the law firm is doing quite fine without having to covertly generate business.”

DLA Piper is a global firm with lawyers in more than 40 countries spanning six continents, according to its website.

Mitchell said Engler’s asking Blanchard to work with him indicates they intend to proceed without partisanship.

“There are other things they could be doing, but they stepped up to this because it’s a serious threat to the university’s reputation and needs to be addressed,” said Mitchell, who graduated from MSU.

Blanchard’s advisory role appeared to pave the way last week for the unanimous approval of Engler by a Board of Trustees split between four Democrats and four Republicans.

“It doesn’t get any stronger than this,” Democratic Trustee George Perles said at the time. “Blanchard and Engler together. That’s quite a team.”

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said MSU, “at this point in time, they need to clearly air on the side of openness and transparency if they want to put this whole episode behind them.”

For his part, Blanchard said he will do whatever he can do help Engler and MSU.

“I’ve followed this from 30,000 feet, but not being in East Lansing and not being at the university, it’s hard to know what really went on. We’re going to have to find out,” Blanchard said.

“The big thing is to honor the victims and make sure nothing like this ever happens again. And that MSU cleans up the mess and makes sure that going forward that we create a gold standard for dealing with sexual assault and discrimination.”