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MSU Interim President John Engler speaks with reporters in Lansing. Jonathan Oosting, The Detroit News

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LansingInterim President John Engler on Thursday argued lawmakers slowed and “interfered” in settlement talks with Larry Nassar sexual abuse victims by taking up legislation he said gives attorneys more leverage in negotiations with Michigan State University.

The MSU leader’s comments drew swift criticism from Nassar victims and their attorneys, who accused him of lying. They disputed any suggestion the sexual assault prevention package has kept them from the negotiating table or diminished their desire to settle claims out of court.

Engler ridiculed some of the Senate-approved bills during testimony before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, arguing they “have nothing to do with supporting survivors at all” and are instead “all about changing the leverage” in settlement talks.

“You actually slowed down the momentum. That’s what you did,” Engler said in an exchange with Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, who asked the former governor about similar comments his spokesman made in an article published by The Detroit News.

“At the same time, you put literally every business in the public sector and the private sector at risk of untold billions of dollars by liability,” he said. “The dramatic changes in the statute of limitations, governmental immunity and filing puts volunteers at risk.”

Lawmakers defended the bills, now awaiting consideration in the House, while victims and their attorneys lambasted Engler for his claims about the legislation and its impact on settlement talks.

“These are flat-out lies,” Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to publicly accuse Nassar, wrote in a Facebook response post. “There is no other way to put it.”

Denhollander disputed Engler’s suggestion the legislation was driven by attorneys, saying she and fellow victim Sterling Riethman — not their attorneys — proposed ideas she had researched to lead sponsor Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage.

“Engler’s position that the attorneys are essentially manipulating us women and puppeteering a narrative is mysogynistic and false,” Denhollander said.

The legislation would retroactively extend the civil statute of limitations to allow lawsuits by minors who were assaulted at any point since 1997. Victims would have a one-year window to file claims against individuals or institutions that harmed them, and the package would also limit claims of governmental immunity by institutions like MSU.

Lawmakers scaled back broader retroactive and immunity elimination provisions this week amid intense lobbying from university, local government and business groups who warned the proposal could cause a glut of difficult-to-defend lawsuits for incidents dating back 30 years.

Engler said MSU supports other bills in the package that would expand a mandatory reporter law to include university coaches and increase punishments for those who fail to alert authorities of suspected sexual assault of minors.

“Those are the bills in the package that actually do some things to help,” he said.

Engler’s testimony

During his roughly one hour of testimony, Engler discussed the university at large, along with efforts to prevent sexual assaults on campus and speed up Title IX investigations.

“This is one where we want to win the Big Ten championship and see if we can’t compete for the national championship, in terms of having the fewest assaults, the fewest incidents reported and the most secure campus,” he said.

Engler told lawmakers he hopes MSU can reach a settlement with victims but suggested their legislation has complicated the process and could potentially increase costs and lead to tuition increases.

“I think blaming the Legislature for a situation where MSU patently ignored what was going on and allowed this to go on for so many years is ridiculous,” Hertel said after the hearing. “If you’re looking for who’s to blame for the fact that there might be large costs to survivors out there, it’s because there are so many of them and it went on for so many years.”

Engler spokesman John Truscott said earlier Thursday that MSU had been negotiating with lawyers representing Nassar victims in civil lawsuits but told The News talks broke down when the legislation was introduced in Lansing.

Victim attorneys challenged claims by Engler and Truscott, with one saying his firm has been “begging MSU for mediation for months.”

John Manly, who is representing more than 150 Nassar victims, said any suggestion negotiations have stalled because of the sweeping sexual assault prevention legislation is “just a lie.”

There have been no negotiations “in terms of dollars” since November, Manly told The News. The Senate-approved legislation was introduced in late February.

MSU attorney Pat Fitzgerald has “been calling us for weeks” trying to set up mediation, including Wednesday night, and victim attorneys have been trying to schedule a meeting, he said.

“They’ve approached us, and we’ve been agreeable to it,” Manly said. “The idea that this legislation is causing this is laughable. It’s what’s driving it, but you shouldn’t need anything to drive negotiations. This is the right thing to do.”

Manly, who said he has not been paying much attention to debate over the bills, told The News that Nassar’s victims want to settle with MSU rather than go to court again to discuss intimate details about their assault.

A settlement would “cost far less” than the “irreparable damage being done to MSU by the people running it,” he said, suggesting Engler has repeatedly alienated Nassar’s victims since taking over the interim presidency in late January.

“I’m convinced that until Mr. Engler is gone or he does a full stop on this attack stuff, that nothing is going to happen and that these women are going to continue to be injured,” Manly said.

Open to mediation

Okemos-based lawyer Mick Grewal agreed, adding that attorneys have been open to returning to mediation with the university for the past two months and were in talks this week about the parameters.

“MSU is refusing to set a date and time, not us,” Grewal said.

Discussions to mediate the cases broke down in December, Grewal said, but re-emerged behind the scenes when Engler stepped in after more than 200 victims gave impact statements about Nassar’s abuse in two courtrooms and former President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis resigned. Attorneys since have been trying to get MSU to agree to parameters but the ball is in their court, he said.

“MSU is playing both side of the fence right now,” Grewal said. “On one hand, they want to look good to the public with Engler making statements that he wants to treat the victims as if these were his daughters. On the other hand, they are accusing the plaintiffs of not following through with mediation and going to the Legislature and trying to oppose some of the bills.

The issue comes during a tense time between MSU, lawmakers and Nassar’s victims.

Engler met with lawmakers this week about the sexual assault prevention legislation to persuade them to delay voting so the financial implications of the bills could be assessed.

The meeting was blasted by Denhollander, whose story about Nassar’s sexual assault led to other women coming forward and the sports doctor’s eventual sentencing essentially to life in prison.

“He chose to stand against every child and every sexual assault victim in the entire state, to protect an institution,” Denhollander said in a report published by ESPN.

She also criticized Truscott for a comment he told The News was taken out of context in the ESPN story. He was quoted as saying he thought it was inappropriate for someone to try to weigh in on something “they knew nothing about.”

“Here you have people who don’t have experience in legislative process making comment about legislative process,” Truscott said.

Denhollander, a lawyer who previously worked as a legislative assistant, took exception. “This is how MSU treats sexual assault survivors,” she said.

Truscott later said his comments were about “a private meeting” that Denhollander was not a part of and said “her assumptions were incorrect.”

Regardless, Denhollander said Thursday that she remains committed to the legislation, which she stressed is not a “Nassar package.”

“This has to be done because Michigan is in the bottom four states in the country in protecting our children and sexual assault victims,” she said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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