Thursday, May 19, 2022

Nassar survivors push to take Melanie Foster out of candidacy for Board of Trustees

May 13, 2022
<p>MSU Trustee Melanie Foster during her presentation at the MI GOP Endorsement Conference on April 23, 2022. </p>

MSU Trustee Melanie Foster during her presentation at the MI GOP Endorsement Conference on April 23, 2022.

Photo by Olivia Hans | The State News

Sifting through his inbox, Oakland County precinct delegate Max Rohtbart was drawn to an email that stood out from the others. This email asked Republican delegates not to vote for Trustee Melanie Foster at the endorsement convention on April 23. 

“Normally when you see an attack email, it’s like (one of the candidates) is pro-critical race theory or some conservative culture wars issue, but this was a direct attack on something the person had done,” Rohtbart said.

The letters listed ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar's survivors’ negative experiences with Foster as a trustee. A group called Parents of Sister Survivors Engage, or POSSE, organized this initiative to send letters in hopes of pushing Foster out of the MSU trustee race.

Rohtbart verified the information in the email was accurate by checking the social media pages of the senders and reaching out to Foster’s campaign. He didn’t receive a response from the campaign, so he decided to vote against her. 

“I just feel if Foster failed to provide the proper amount of oversight then she failed her responsibilities as a trustee and should not be renominated,” Rohtbart said.

He said that the Nassar case aligns with Republican interest in the protection of children.

“To see that a university trustee failed to protect someone’s child just really hits home for a lot of delegates,” Rohtbart said. “Whether it’s accurate or not, it just is really a strong message that transcends beyond the normal range of politics.”

AT THE ELECTION

Foster was the longest-serving member on the board. She lost the runoff vote against candidate Mike Balow, receiving 496 votes. Balow took the second spot on the ballot with 1484 votes, placing him next to the other Republican candidate Travis Menge.

“Her result is absolutely awful for an incumbent,” Rohtbart said. “It was because a lot of delegates were like ‘Hey, Foster didn’t side with victims enough.’ That really was almost universal between a lot of delegates at the convention.”

Rohtbart thinks if Foster were to have addressed the allegation directly, she might have received more votes.

“I wanted her to address it,” Rohtbart said. “I wanted to see what her perspective was on what had happened or her thoughts on it, but there was just absolutely nothing. It was like she was campaigning like it had never even happened.”

Republican chairman for Macomb County Eric Castiglia said he did not receive an email from POSSE, but he heard delegates discussing the allegations against Foster at other events and on the convention floor. 

Castiglia has two sons that attend MSU. He thought about them and decided against voting for Foster.

“(The Nassar scandal) just wasn’t acceptable,” Castiglia said. “She was a trustee during that time and then when she stopped the independent investigation, I really didn’t feel she was standing up for my kids. God forbid, anything like that ever happened to them, I would want someone to do whatever they could so we know what happened and that we knew everything was uncovered.”

During his campaign, Balow mentioned Foster’s decisions during the Nassar investigation. Foster released a statement following Balow’s endorsement responding to his comments.

Foster Rebuttal.pdf

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” Foster said in the statement. “MSU Trustee Candidate Mike Balow is attempting to rewrite history.” 

She discussed MSU’s process for the Nassar investigation, the history of the Healing Fund, and her experience as a trustee.

“As a member of a minority party on the board for years, I have advocated for bi-partisanship to move the university forward,” Foster said in the statement. “Simply stated, it is working with the hand I have been dealt.” 

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Menge, the other Republican party endorsement, campaigned with Foster at the convention.

“The true highlight of running for reelection was getting to know Dr. Travis Menge,” Foster said. “I think he would be a tremendous board member.” 

IN THE LETTERS

The letters said Foster failed to support the Healing Fund and she voted against an independent investigation of the Larry Nassar case. 

The Healing Fund was frozen in July 2018 due to possible fraudulent claims. In December 2018, it was announced the fund would be discontinued.

Foster said the fund was originally established in December 2017 by President Lou Anna Simon. She said it was never something the trustees voted on.

“One of the falsifications in those letters is that I was accused of not approving the 10 million dollar Healing Fund,” Foster said. “It did not go to a vote, but it was supported by every member of the Board of Trustees.”

Letter 2 - Nicole.pdf

Board of Trustees Chair Dianne Byrum released a statement on Jan. 9, 2019, following the initial closure of the Healing Assistance Fund, saying the board “unanimously instructed the university to establish a fund to assist with the cost of counseling and mental health services for former patients of Larry Nassar.”

The fund’s initial establishment in 2017 as well as its re-establishment in 2019 were unanimously supported by the board, but its discontinuation did not involve any vote or discussion among trustees, according to MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant.

The decision to freeze and discontinue the fund was not directly involved with any subcommittee Foster chaired either. 

“I don’t think it would be fair to characterize that Melanie has been super hands-on with the Healing Fund, both in a negative and positive way,” Guerrant said. “It’s never been something she’s been directly engaged with.”

Foster also said she was fully cooperative with the investigation by the Attorney General’s office. 

“I personally turned in my laptop, my phone, fully cooperated,” Foster said. “After Renee Knake Jefferson read the thousands of pages of documents, there isn’t a single trustee that called for yet another investigation. So I didn’t call for one and neither did my seven colleagues.”

However, Renee Knake Jefferson said she called for an independent investigation at the December 2020 board meeting.

On Sept. 6, 2019, Byrum released a statement on the independent investigation. After discussing plans for the law firm McDermott, Will & Emery to conduct a separate investigation, Byrum said the board was “split on defining the scope of work and (they) have made the decision not to move forward with a letter of engagement at this time.”

At the time, survivors Rachael Denhollander, Sarah Klein and Sterling Riethman called out Trustees Foster, Byrum, Brianna Scott and former Trustee Joel Ferguson for killing the independent investigation.

TAKING ACTION

POSSE representative Valerie Von Frank said POSSE is made up of parents whose daughters were involved in the Nassar case. Once they heard the news about Foster re-running for the board, the parents used their connections with Sister Survivors to send letters to the Republican delegates.

She said POSSE held a similar initiative against Joel Ferguson by making phone calls and attending the Democratic endorsement convention. She said when Byrum and Scott are up for re-election, the parents will discuss and will most likely take action then, too.

“We reached out to some (Sister Survivors) that we thought were in a good place to be able to handle the situation and express themselves,” Von Frank said. “There are a lot of the sisters that don’t want to be involved politically, so it’s hard sometimes to know, but we’ve continued as parents to do what we can.”

While responding to emails from delegates asking for additional information, Von Frank was able to keep up with the convention election results. 

“We were responding to delegates and felt, even on Friday, that we were getting a lot of support through these emails that we were getting,” Von Frank said. “And the day of, we were able to follow and see the results as they happened.”

Survivor Katelynne Hall, a former Nassar patient at MSU, was contacted by Von Frank to help with the initiative.

“As soon as I heard that (Foster) was running again and that we had an opportunity to steer everyone away from voting her in, I was on board,” Hall said.

Hall’s role was to reach out to other survivors to get their signatures on the letters. She said she wanted to get involved with this initiative because she hoped for more support for the Healing Fund.

“That Healing Fund has not only helped me but so many other survivors of getting the help that they need after everything,” Hall said. “You still have to process it. I know a lot of us didn’t do that in the healthiest ways so that Healing Fund really helped us create a positive experience while trying to heal from the trauma we had.”

Hall got a text from Von Frank after hearing Foster lost the election. 

“It was such exciting news because it feels like we’re still making progress of getting people out of there that failed us and continue to fail sexual assault survivors,” Hall said. “So it was really good news hearing that she wasn’t (re-elected).”

Another survivor and former MSU gymnast Nicole Casady helped write one of these letters to delegates.

“I was very, very proactive in many Board of Trustees meetings, trying to get the university to treat wave two survivors fairly throughout that process, which was never something that happened,” Casady said. “From the earliest part that I could get involved, I just wanted to be a voice and a sounding box for people like me who had not been treated fairly.”

To get the message out to Republican delegates, Casady composed a draft and gave it to Von Frank to send out. Casady hoped sending her letters would lead to more transparency in the Nassar investigation.

“Looking at the track record of Melanie and her consistent message to not stand by women of sexual assault was something that was important,” Casady said. She said she was relieved after Foster’s loss and the Sister Survivors will continue to take initiative.

“Our pursuit of justice is not going to end without transparency from the university,” Casady said. “We’ll keep fighting for transparency throughout the rest of this until we get what we believe is justice.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated on May 14 to highlight that Jefferson did call for an independent investigation at the December 2020 board meeting.

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