MSU to pay Blanchard law firm $50,000 a month

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Michigan State University will pay the law firm of former Gov. Jim Blanchard $50,000 a month to represent it in federal investigations in Washington related to the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

One contract covers MSU’s representation before the U.S. Congress and its committees for the next year for a retainer of $25,000 a month, and the other covers the federal executive branch and its departments for $25,000 a month.

If a congressional committee or federal agency initiates a formal investigation of MSU or the university has to testify at a congressional or executive branch hearing, those services would be billed separately on an hourly basis by the firm, DLA Piper, according to a copy of the contracts provided by MSU.

The fixed rate of $25,000 a month don’t cover costs for travel expenses, research services, copying or outside fees.

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In engagement letters to Interim MSU President John Engler dated Monday, Blanchard said he will be “responsible for and actively involved in the matter,” supervising the work of more than 20 professionals in the firm’s federal law and policy practice. Additional lawyers could be used on an as-needed basis, he noted.

“I am very pleased that MSU has DLA Piper and Jim Blanchard representing us in Washington on the substantive issues before Congress and the Executive Branch,” Engler, a former Republican governor, said in a statement Monday. “His professionalism and that of his firm will be a great asset for Spartan nation.”

The university entered the contracts with Blanchard’s firm despite concerns voiced by some congressional lawmakers about potential conflicts of interest. The agreement started Feb. 1 and runs through Jan. 31, 2019.

The arrangement, first reported by The Detroit News, raised questions about whether the Piper firm or Blanchard, a Democratic former congressman, would benefit financially from the Nassar investigations.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat who had pushed for an interim leader at MSU from outside Michigan, said last week that “no questions like this should come up ever.”

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.”

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

“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,” Blanchard said last week.

U.S. House and Senate committees have sent inquiries to MSU, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, among other sports governing organizations in recent weeks. They follow Nassar’s conviction and sentencing to decades in prison for sexual misconduct and child pornography crimes.

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.

The U.S. Department of Education has said it also is investigating.