Here’s some news you’ve seen before: Michigan State University is launching a new investigation into how its former sports doctor, Larry Nassar, was able to sexually abuse so many patients for decades, despite numerous victims reporting to authorities.
In 2016, MSU hired Patrick Fitzgerald, a former federal prosecutor, to conduct a “factual review.” But later the University said it never intended for Fitzgerald’s team to actually produce a report from that review. (Fitzgerald told then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, however, that he was “confident the evidence will show that no MSU official believed that Nassar committed sexual abuse prior to newspaper reports in the summer of 2016.”)
Then, in 2018, the school asked the Michigan Attorney General’s office to conduct its own review. But for months now, the AG’s investigators have complained they’re being “stonewalled” by MSU’s lawyers and trustees, with the board claiming attorney-client privilege to withhold some 6,000 documents.
But this time, the school promises, is different.
“It’s exactly what we’ve been asking for”
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly come forward about Nassar, isn’t exactly breathing a sigh of relief yet. But she is feeling cautiously optimistic.
“The end product remains to be seen, and I think there’s good reason to be wary and on guard,” Denhollander says. “But this investigation is radically different than anything MSU has done before, for a couple of reasons: first, the scope is much broader. It is able to look at the failures at MSU that go beyond what is illegal. And most of the failures at MSU were not illegal, and so that’s critical.
“It’s truly independent. MSU has not done an independent review of everything that’s happened. And they’ve worked directly with survivors in selecting a firm…that really emphasizes the importance of accountability and transparency and independence from the board... It’s exactly what we’ve been asking for, what I’ve been asking for, for the last three years.”
What exactly that Chicago-based firm, McDermott Will & Emery, will be investigating is still being hammered out. “The full scope, timeline, cost and contract are still being negotiated,” MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said in a statement on Friday.
But Denhollander says survivors have been promised a public report. “A report the board doesn’t get to have their fingers in, doesn’t get to edit, doesn’t get to clean up,” she says.
AG: just let us do our jobs
But trustees say they’re still not waiving attorney-client privilege, meaning even these new investigators won’t be able to review the 6,000 or so documents the Michigan attorney general’s office wants.
Speaking of Attorney General Dana Nessel: her office didn’t mince words in a statement sent out shortly after MSU announced its decision Friday morning.
“Michigan State University lacks the credibility necessary to conduct a legitimate investigation,” Nessel said in the press release.
“Over the past few years, it has launched several investigations including an ‘independent investigation’ conducted by Patrick Fitzgerald in 2016. Unsurprisingly, it has cleared its employees of culpability each time. There is only one way for MSU to regain the public’s trust and that is to waive its privilege and disclose all information in its possession about Larry Nassar to the Department of Attorney General. In other words, the University should leave the job of investigating to the professionals.”
Denhollander, for her part, says she and fellow survivors are still urging MSU trustees to release all documents to the AG’s office. “That’s something I have been pushing for, that survivors have been pushing for,” she says.
“But in terms of the criticisms of the investigation, I am disheartened. Because the attorney general has not been involved in this process. She’s not aware of what we discussed in interviewing the firm. She’s not aware of the scope that we discussed. And I don’t think her criticism is legitimate.”
Nearly 50 survivors signed letter asking board not to do this
Louise Hardy says she was one of five or so Nassar survivors, including Denhollander, who were “brought to the table” a few months ago to talk about a possible investigation with the trustees.
“When we stepped into this role, we were told [by the trustees that] we had one shot: MSU will not continue independent investigation after independent investigation, this is our only shot at getting all the information,” she says. “So if it’s not done correctly this time, we likely will never know the full story.”
But Hardy says she and others soon became convinced that MSU should focus on fully cooperating with the attorney general’s investigation, rather than hiring new investigators to start a different one.
Nearly 50 survivors signed a letter sent to the Board of Trustees in February, expressing their misgivings. One of their main concerns: if MSU is paying for this firm to investigate, how can people trust what they find?
“Private investigations funded by the party under scrutiny may be suspect as the findings may favor the party financing the investigation,” the letter says. “...The University’s recent history of obfuscation and lack of understanding on the effects of this case and of trauma may lead to a continued lack of willingness to accept the University as a source of a credible independent report.”
Instead, the letter urged the board to turn over the roughly 6,000 documents the AG was requesting.
“ Beginning with a new third party would duplicate more than a year’s worth of preliminary investigation and further delay findings,” the survivors wrote. “... Releasing the 6,000 documents would demonstrate the Board’s commitment to full transparency; its faith in the institutions of our state, i.e. the Attorney General’s office; and its desire to restore trust between the University and the community.”
By March, Hardy says she and two others sent the board yet another letter, saying they could no longer work with the school to plan a potential investigation. The whole process felt rushed, they said, and they were worried MSU trustees or legal counsel would try to whitewash whatever the new investigators found.
“MSU cannot be allowed to review the report prior to publication and/or release a summary of the original document for public review,” they wrote. “This promise needs to be made to the public, and to the survivors, written in legally binding form, before a firm can be chosen.”
“Not giving up”
Denhollander says she understands those fears, and the mistrust of MSU. “And if there’s one thing we should know after the last few years, it’s that survivors aren’t going to give up. I’m not going to give up on accountability and transparency. I didn't do what I did, to turn around and help MSU hide things.”
After asking for a full, independent review into the Nassar case for the past three years, Denhollander says this is an opportunity she has to seize.
“That’s what I’ve been asking for...ever since I started speaking up: commission an independent investigation. Find out what happened. And we’ve had that in bits and pieces…[but] what we need is an examination that can cross all of those boundaries… that can look at all of the departments. That can look at the board. That can look at the Office of General Counsel, and that can look for failures that are...breakdowns in policies and processes, breakdowns in training, and really tie together all of the facets of why Larry was able to abuse for so many decades.”