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MSU has paid $78,204 for board chair’s lawyers in leak probe

November 20, 2023
Chairwoman Rema Vassar at the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.
Chairwoman Rema Vassar at the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023. —
Photo by Sonya Barlow | The State News

Michigan State University has spent at least $78,204 on board chair Rema Vassar’s outside counsel in the ongoing investigation into who may have leaked the identity of Brenda Tracy, the woman who former football coach Mel Tucker was found to have sexually harassed. 

While the lawyers are representing Vassar as an individual, the university is paying the fees.

They’ve billed 51 hours on Vassar’s case thus far, beginning work on Sept. 12, according to invoices obtained by The State News. 

That’s the same day that the university received a draft statement from Tracy accusing “someone associated with the MSU board” of leaking her identity to local media, forcing her to publicly come forward with the allegations against Tucker.

That’s also the same day that MSU’s administration hired a different law firm, Jones Day, to investigate who at the university may have leaked Tracy’s identity.

The precise timing of the three things — MSU receiving the draft statement, MSU ordering an investigation into the leak and Vassar hiring her own lawyers — is unclear. Documents detailing the three actions are all labeled Sept. 12.

MSU’s president, athletic director and the other board members did not retain outside counsel for the leak investigation, according to a public records request response from MSU.

The invoices detailing Vassar's representation, which were released by MSU in response to a public records request, are heavily redacted to obscure descriptions of the lawyers’ work.

The redactions also obscure areas that would confirm that Vassar is the individual the lawyers are representing. But other university documents reviewed by The State News confirm that Vassar is that person.

The lawyers, from the Quinn Emanuel firm, are the same ones who conducted a $1.6 million dollar investigation for MSU’s board earlier this year, looking into the ousting of controversial former business dean Sanjay Gupta. 

The three attorneys representing Vassar in her dealings with the leak probe billed between $990 and $1,865 an hour to represent her in the investigation, according to the invoices.

The lead attorney is Crystal Nix-Hines, the former U.S. ambassador to UNESCO. She billed 10 hours, totaling $19,209, on the Vassar matter in Sept.

Nix-Hines also led the Gupta investigation for MSU’s board and provided them with $41,289 in related “crisis management PR” consulting in fall 2022.

Vassar has denied being the leak. In a statement, she said she “had no involvement in the alleged leak and (was) not aware of any trustees knowing the identity of Brenda Tracy prior to its public dissemination.”

Allegations that Vassar refused to comply with the leak investigation were central to a recent push to remove her from MSU’s board. 

Last month, trustee Brianna Scott released a letter calling for Vassar’s removal from the board for, among other things, refusing to allow the leak investigators to review the contents of her cell phone for their investigation. 

That was a cause of concern for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the only person who could remove a sitting trustee from the board.

Days after Scott’s letter was released, Whitmer said her office was “closely watching” MSU’s board and evaluating removing Vassar over Scott’s allegations.

Specifically, Whitmer said Vassar’s alleged handling of the leak investigation troubled her. 

“It’s alarming to me that any trustee would not fully comply with an investigation about a victim whose name was inappropriately and perhaps unlawfully leaked,” Whitmer said. “I’ve got a lot of questions, and I think Spartan nation has questions.”

At a board meeting days after Whitmer’s comments, Vassar said she had ultimately agreed to turn her phone over to the leak investigators.

Vassar did not return a call seeking comment. MSU declined to comment on the pending investigation.

It’s unclear when and how the leak probe will end. The university has declined to say when they believe the investigation will be complete and if the results will ever be made public.

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