House: ‘Alarming’ findings in MSU, Nassar inquiry

Jonathan Oosting, and Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Lansing — Larry Nassar was able to brazenly abuse women for decades because Michigan State University failed to properly pursue complaints, destroyed vital documents and allowed the disgraced doctor to exploit loopholes in university policies to avoid scrutiny, Michigan House lawmakers said Thursday.

A months-long inquiry by the House into how MSU handled accusations of sexual assault by the former gymnastics doctor produced “alarming” findings that were forwarded to the attorney general’s office for further investigation.

While some of those findings remain under wraps because of an ongoing criminal investigation, bipartisan committee leaders disclosed several significant findings in a letter to House Speaker Tom Leonard, highlighting failures by MSU.

“Nassar seems to have spent decades developing his ability to abuse patients without detection by identifying and exploiting loopholes in the policies that governed his professional conduct and patient relationships,” wrote lawmakers, describing their review of MSU documents and question responses.

Medical records were never kept for many of Nassar’s “treatments,” they found. MSU did not have an adequate informed consent policy in place for much of the time he worked there, which Nassar “methodically exploited,” lawmakers said, and university policies did not require a chaperone to be in the room “during sensitive examinations of minors.”

In some cases, MSU “had destroyed” patients’ medical records by the time they reported Nassar to university police, lawmakers said. While the destruction did not violate state law or university policy, “such records may have proven useful to at least one of the survivors seeking justice against Nassar.”

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said following the inquiry’s release that “MSU will be working with the House on its legislation and shares the joint concern of lawmakers who want to make sure the horrendous abuse that Larry Nassar executed cannot happen again.”

An attorney for the university answered dozens of questions from lawmakers, which they also released.

Miller Canfield attorney Scott Eldridge told lawmakers that the university already has implemented a new privacy and chaperone policy. The university’s 10-year record retention policy exceeds the seven years required by state law, but the health team is “conducting a global policy review, and there is potential that the minimum retention time will (be) addressed.”

The House findings are the result of an extensive inquiry by the Law and Justice Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education. They requested Nassar-related information from MSU on Jan. 25 and received more than 1,500 pages of documents.

Lawmakers on March 8 requested additional details about complaints filed against Nassar, with state Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, saying they needed “more to paint a clearer picture as to how the school addressed the Nassar accusations.”

The inquiry revealed “clear gaps in current law, regulations, and policies that help enable an environment, which, unfortunately, has proven ripe for abuse,” said the letter, signed by Republican committee chair Reps. Kesto and Kim Lasata, and Democratic vice-chair Reps. Stephanie Chang and Jon Hoadley.

They plan to introduce bipartisan legislation in response, including prevention, intervention and accountability measures.

Among their findings, lawmakers said that at least 243 girls and women have reported Nassar to the MSU policy since 2014. Most were minors. Many were gymnasts, but others were not.

Morgan McCaul, a UM student and Nassar victim, said the lawmakers’ findings brought “a wave of relief” and the “validation we’ve been seeking for years.”

“We knew MSU was grossly negligent, we knew MSU enabled sexual deviants for decades, and we knew that I would have never been assaulted if they had proper policies in place,” McCaul said. “It was vindication to read confirmation, from an outstanding source, that they are very much in the wrong. I hope this is enough to make them listen, finally.”

Since former Nassar patient Rachael Denhollander took her accusations public in 2016, MSU has received 91 new Title IX complaints against Nassar, who is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison following sexual assault and child pornography charges.

The inquiry noted that Nassar did not request or receive payments from patients or insurers for many of his medical “treatments,” including those at his home and a nearby Twistars Gymnastics Club gym, “which should have raised questions about his motives” much earlier than it did, lawmakers wrote.

MSU failed to properly investigate a 2014 Title IX complaint filed by victim Amanda Thomashow and, as a result, may have “enabled the abuse of others,” lawmakers found. In that case, they said, MSU did not consult any truly independent medical experts to determine the appropriateness of his treatment, which involved vaginal and anal penetration.

“Astonishingly, one of the witnesses was hand-picked by Nassar himself, while two others were suggested by then-Dean William Strampel,” lawmakers wrote. Strampel, Nassar’s former boss, was also charged with sexual misconduct last month, but his attorney has denied accusations by former students.

Eldridge, in response to lawmaker questions, said MSU’s Title IX investigator asked Strampel for other doctors who could provide an “informed and impartial” analysis of Nassar’s conduct. He said Thomashow had reported external breast and genital area contact and feared vaginal penetration.

“As with any investigation, the potential for bias or conflict of interest was taken into account,” Eldrige wrote. “All of the medical personnel, despite their respective level of professional association with Nassar, stated that the conduct was a recognized treatment modality and provided clear rationales for their assessments.”

MSU cleared Nassar in the 2014 investigation but Eldrige told lawmakers a 2017 Title IX complaint filed by Denhollander “revealed facts that were materially different” from the earlier case.

Denhollander reported vaginal and anal penetration, he said. She also reported that Nassar at times appeared sexually aroused. Denhollander’s mother, who was in the room for treatments, also reported at least one instance of Nassar appearing to be sexually aroused.

“At no point did Nassar attempt to justify the behavior described by Ms. Denhollander as medically appropriate treatment,” Eldridge wrote. “Having found there being no medical explanation for the conduct, a violation was found.”

The House findings also describe, in great detail, how Nassar normalized his behavior and grew increasingly bold over more than two decades, beginning in the 1990s. Lawmakers said evidence shows he initially took “careful” steps to ensure his treatment would be perceived as medically appropriate by explaining it to patients and using a pelvic model demonstration before performing it on them.

But his conduct shifted as he realized “what he could get away with,” lawmakers said. By the late 1990s or early 2000s, he occasionally would only mention that he was going to adjust the pelvic bone, they explained as an example, but not fully explain the procedure.

“By 2014, he seems to have felt confident enough to abuse his patients without any prior notice or explanation whatsoever of the purported medical treatment,” lawmakers wrote. “By 2016, he was self-assured enough to readily admit to investigators that he ‘does not get written consent from the patient before treatment’ and even testified that ‘unless the patient stops him, he is assuming the patient understands.’ ”

Data provided by MSU officials show the college’s Title IX staff has grown substantially in the past 15 years, from two to three investigators between 2011 and 2014 to nine investigators, two administrators and four staffers between 2016 and 2017. The expanded staff corresponded to an increase in Title IX complaints, from 55 in 2011-12 to 461 in 2015-16 and 740 in 2017-18.

MSU said prior to Nassar’s termination in September 2016, the Office of Institutional Equity had not received any reports from coaches or athletic department staff regarding Nassar.

House lawmakers, who said they consulted with Nassar victims, compiled a list of more than 30 recommendations for potential new laws or policies to prevent similar crimes in the future.

Recommendations include new rules and standardized consent forms for vaginal or anal penetrative medical procedures, creation of a new Title IX ombudsman and a prohibition against using expert witnesses employed by the institution or with close ties to the accused in a Title IX investigation.

The Michigan Senate last month approved a package that would expand the state’s mandatory reporter law for sexual assault involving a minor and give victims more time to sue or pursue criminal charges.

The Senate bills begin “addressing inadequacies in current law,” House lawmakers said, but they “believe additional changes are needed not only to more comprehensively protect others from similar abuses, but also to change the very culture which allows for sexual abuse to occur — whether in a medical setting, school or anywhere else in our communities.”

Sterling Riethman, a Nassar victim from Kalamazoo, said she was “encouraged to see the lawmakers of our state committing to protecting future generations.”

“Their list of recommendations for the future shows that they understand the vast systemic failures of MSU and will not tolerate them being repeated,” Riethman said. “I’m grateful for their leadership and can now only hope that the leadership at MSU is finally listening. If they won’t listen to the survivors, maybe they’ll listen to the lawmakers.”

Staff writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.