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MSU board refuses to release Nassar documents to attorney general

April 21, 2023
POSSE shirts placed on chairs by the members of the group, at the  Board of Trustees Meeting held at the Hannah Administration Building on Apr. 21, 2023.
POSSE shirts placed on chairs by the members of the group, at the Board of Trustees Meeting held at the Hannah Administration Building on Apr. 21, 2023. —
Photo by Denille Reid | The State News

Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees confirmed Friday that it will retain attorney client privilege over thousands of long-withheld documents relating to the university’s handling of disgraced ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar and not comply with the state attorney general's recent letter demanding the records.

The request — sent by Nessel in hopes of reopening her investigation into “how and why the University failed to protect students” — includes email and text communications to and from 20 MSU leaders and employees, records of internal complaints and investigations and personnel files of those who worked with and above Nassar during his time at MSU.

The board has long withheld these records. In March 2021, under the leadership of then-chair Dianne Byrum, the board privately agreed to invoke attorney-client privilege over the documents, citing then-ongoing legal disagreements with 12 of the university’s insurers regarding a $500 million settlement to Nassar survivors.

The insurers have argued that MSU’s failure to act on reports of Nassar’s abuse leave the university outside its policies and on the hook for the settlement. Today, the legal battles with all but one of those insurers are resolved. If a settlement isn’t reached, MSU and that insurer will resolve the dispute in a jury trial beginning on Oct. 30. A university spokesperson did not answer questions on the financial significance of the remaining disagreement.

When asked if the board would reconsider complying with the attorney general’s request after the final litigation is settled, Vassar said that isn’t a given, arguing that releasing the documents could “retraumatize survivors” and violate their privacy.

When asked if she’s heard that concern from any survivors, Vassar said she hasn't, but that she can’t “speak to all survivors.”

Valerie Von Frank, the mother of a Nassar survivor and president of survivor advocacy group POSSE, called Vassar’s argument “another strawman” and a “betrayal.”

“156 of our children stood up in court and told their stories, so that this would not happen again,” Von Frank said. “It is negating everything that they stood for to say ‘there's something secret in the documents that we can't reveal because we're protecting survivors.’”

Representatives of the attorney general did not return calls and emails seeking response to Vassar's argument at time of publication. Nessel did release a statement on the board's decision, saying that she expected more from board's new leadership and members.

"The university that shielded Larry Nassar from justice and this new board who refused today to take the vote still has something to prove to the people of Michigan, the current students they ought to protect, and the Nassar victims the school has failed for decades," the statement said.

Nassar is currently serving an effective life sentence for numerous county charges of assaulting young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment and federal child pornography charges. Many of his offenses occurred during his work as an MSU doctor. Subsequent lawsuits and accounts from survivors have alleged that MSU’s administration and board failed to protect his victims and ignored reports of abuse.

Vice chair Dan Kelly addressed the decision in his comments at the close of the meeting, saying he has recused himself from discussions regarding the request. Kelly is one of two current trustees whose emails and texts are included in the request. He did not serve on the board during Nassar's time at MSU, but did serve during much of the aftermath

He said that it was "offense" that members of the media implied that he had a conflict of interest, but nonetheless recused himself because "some would claim that I have a conflict."

Trustee Dennis Denno, who began crying and left the room during public comments from the parent of a Nassar survivor, said, "to the Nassar survivors, the parents, the families, I'm sorry a great university can at times be really sh-, I don't know what else to say," during his comments

None of the other trustees present during the comment portion of the meeting addressed the issues in their comments. Trustees Renee Knake Jefferson and Diane Byrum did not attend the meeting, trustee Brianna Scott left partially through the meeting.

What release would mean

The “release” of the documents would not immediately make them public, according to MSU Spokesperson Emily Guerrant. They would instead be turned over to Nessel for use in her investigation.

However, with the attorney-client privilege exemption no longer at MSU’s disposal, they could become available through the Freedom Of Information Act. MSU is allowed 15 business days to process those requests, though possible fees and redactions could end up adding additional weeks to the processing time.

Public outcry

Public commenters at Friday's meeting criticized the board’s lack of action.

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During her public comments, Von Frank, the POSSE leader, said she was disappointed with their lack of action on the documents. 

“I hoped we would be here this morning to commend you for releasing the documents,” Von Frank said. “I haven't heard a word about it, so what I can say is we will applaud Dana Nessel for her courage.”

Von Frank recounted years of opposition by the board, saying “it’s now 2023, and this university is still providing cover for a pedophile.” 

“You’re running out of excuses,” Von Frank said. 

Associated Students of MSU President Jo Kovach also spoke in support of releasing the documents, saying that "if this board wants to show actual support for survivors and steps in transparency, then take a public vote."

"You're in an elected position, make decisions in public, where your constituents can see them," Kovach said.

Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz could not attend the meeting in-person, but sent the board a letter demanding the documents’ release. Lorincz wrote that she has addressed the board numerous times beginning in 2017, according to a copy of the letter shared online.

“I can only imagine that it is easy to vote no when it is not your daughter, sister, niece, or granddaughter who was abused at the hands of Larry Nassar,” Lorincz’s letter said. “I’m asking you for one brief moment to imagine that it was your loved one. Wouldn’t you want answers?”

The letter was retweeted by Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, who has shared her own story of being sexually abused by Nassar during his work at USA Gymnastics.

Where they’ve stood

Three of the trustees have publicly voiced strong support for releasing the documents, two have implied that they favor releasing them but not been explicit and three have been openly unsupportive of releasing them.

In March, Board chair Rema Vassar told WKAR that she was supportive of releasing the documents, saying “transparency is important for healing and for trust.”

In her comments at the board’s February meeting, Trustee Renee Knake Jefferson reaffirmed her support for the release of the documents. In 2020, Jefferson reviewed the documents and concluded that, while she supports transparency, they don’t contain new information about MSU’s handling of Nassar’s abuse.

Trustee Sandy Pierce, who was appointed in 2022, has not made a public stance on the issue. At the board’s February meeting, she did respond to public commenters demanding the documents’ release by saying “those of you who have spoked, we’re listening and our commitment to transparency is real.”

While campaigning in 2022, Trustee Dennis Denno told survivor groups that he would “definitely support” releasing the documents, according to a record of a meeting obtained by The State News.

Trustee Kelly Tebay has not voiced full support or opposition. In 2019, she told Michigan Radio that she didn’t understand the insurance lawsuit defense, saying that if they don’t describe a “cover-up,” they wouldn’t hurt MSU’s defense.

Trustees Brianna Scott and Dan Kelly, also talking to Michigan Radio in 2019, opposed releasing the documents. Saying that doing so and potentially compromising the insurance litigation could be against the university’s best financial interests and thus their fiduciary duties as trustee.

Trustee Byrum has not taken a stance on the documents at recent meetings but did send the March 2021 letter from the board which most recently affirmed their opposition to releasing the documents.

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