Nassar survivors sue MSU, claim board met in secret over blocking documents release ⋆
Survivors of serial pedophile, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar, are suing the university, saying members of the board convened in secret in April to block the public from knowing the truth about the university’s knowledge of Nassar’s abuse.
Survivors and parents of survivors named as plaintiffs in the complaint filed in an Ingham County court Thursday gathered with their attorney, Azzam Elder, in the case in front of one of MSU’s entrance signs to announce their legal efforts and call on the university to take accountability. There are 27 named plaintiffs, along with two Jane Does and the group POSSE (Parents of Sister Survivors Engage).
Survivors say thousands of documents MSU is withholding from the public, having been granted attorney-client privilege, could hold information that may lead to justice for some “sister survivors” as they call each other. Regardless, Elizabeth Maurer, 20, said she and the other survivors just want closure.
“I just want this to be over. I want to be a normal college student and a normal college athlete,” Maurer said, sharing she sometimes misses out on college experiences due to ongoing news about MSU and Nassar. “It’s just really really difficult to keep kind of chasing these battles and never really winning because there’s never any closure with anything that’s ever done. So I would just really like for MSU to kind of help this part of my trauma be closed off so I can start healing from this.”
Nassar is serving essentially three life sentences from federal court and two Michigan courts on child pornography charges, as well as several charges of criminal sexual conduct. Over 150 women and girls gave victim impact statements in a Lansing court in January 2018, many called him a friend, a trusted adult and doctor who abused his position of power.
Angelika Martinez-McGhee, alongside other survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse spoke about legal action against Michigan State university on July 27, 2023 in front of one of MSU’s entrance signs.
More than six years since former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette launched an investigation, at the request of the MSU Board of Trustees, into whether anyone at MSU had knowlege of Nassar’s abuse prior to public reports in 2016, after IndyStar reporters first broke reports of sexual abuse, MSU refuses to release over 6000 documents the attorney general requested.
Current Attorney General Dana Nessel ended the investigation into MSU in 2021, citing MSU’s withholding of the documents under attorney-client privilege saying, “The university’s refusal to voluntarily provide them closes the last door available to finish our investigation. … We’re incredibly disappointed that our work will end this way, especially for the survivors.”
Nessel cited MSU’s “stonewalling” as one of the reasons her office didn’t investigate over one thousand reports of sexual abuse by late University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson.
Angelika Martinez-McGhee, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse as a 15-year-old gymnast, said at the announcement of the lawsuit Thursday that this is many survivors’ “last shot” at justice, using a basketball game analogy.
“We’ve been playing this basketball game for like five years trying to get these documents and this lawsuit is actually the last shot. The time clock’s already down. We have five seconds left,” Martinez McGhee said. “There are 508 of us on this team and we’re all playing. On this last play, we’re all playing.”
Details of the lawsuit
The lawsuit, filed in a Lansing court against the university, says the MSU Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar had requested Nessel to re-request the documents as the board would vote to release them at its April 21 meeting.
Nessel resubmitted a request, the board denied it and the lawsuit asserts that the board held secret meetings and votes to strike down the request, then shirked its legal responsibility to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests, all acting against public interest and responsibility to perform their duties as elected officials with transparency.
Michigan is one of the only states where some of its university governance boards are elected, according to The Petoskey News-Review and the only state where they are elected through a statewide election as of 2020, according to The Associated Press.
Nessel calls for new MSU board to turn over Nassar documents
Elder, the Dearborn-based attorney for the survivors and their parents, said the majority of trustees at one point or another publicly and in private interactions with survivors had been saying for months that they’d vote to release the documents, but something happened. He said he thinks they met in secret to quash having to reveal something about the university and its handling of Nassar’s abuse.
“There’s something they’re hiding. There is something they’re hiding. This board was entrusted, was elected to finally do the right thing. It’s not about hiding behind a technical privilege. You’re elected by the people, just release the documents. Let’s get closure and allow people to really start to heal. So when I hear them mouth off that they care about the survivors, iIt really upsets me,” Elder said.
The complaint says between April 10 and April 21, the trustees made closed-door decisions to withhold the “Nassar documents” and plan to not hold a public vote.
“Some of the trustees were two-faced and acting in bad faith, never intending to release the documents … the majority of the Board of Trustees also decided not to allow for a public vote to take place on April 21, 2023 to openly document the decision in a public forum in compliance with state law,” the complaint reads.
Elder said in the complaint he sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to MSU on April 25, 2023, requesting correspondents from MSU trustees, administrators and staff from the beginning of February to April 26 with key words including vote, privileged documents and AG.
Documents filed with the complaint show on May 3, MSU sent a request for fees and Elder alerted them a check would be overnighted. On May 24 counsel alerted MSU the FOIA request was well-overdue.
The next day, MSU sent a letter saying they were extending their timeframe to fulfill the FOIA to June 5. When that day arrived, the complaint says MSU again extended their timeframe to July 11.
Elder said he told MSU on June 15 because the FOIA is meant to seek information about the university’s possible violation of the Open Meetings Act by holding secret meetings, and the statute of limitations was running out to file a lawsuit, which is 60 days for violations of the Open Meetings Act, if the university would not comply, the plaintiffs would have to simply file a lawsuit without the documents.
“On June 5, 2023, the MSU FOIA coordinator sent me a letter informing me that MSU needs an additional 5 weeks to complete the search for the emails and public records. This is unreasonable and in violation of the FOIA statute. More importantly, I believe MSU is intending to try and run the clock on the statute of limitations under the Open Meetings Act,” Elder said in the complaint.
Attorney Azzam Elder speaks alongside survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse to announce legal action against Michigan State University on July 27, 2023 in front of one of MSU’s entrance signs.
That day MSU’s legal counsel agreed to fulfill the FOIA, but with another extension, now for Monday.
By July 6, MSU did send over a first tier of the FOIA request, but Elder said it was full of non-compliant documents having nothing to do with the subject matter of the FOIA, including a newsletter from The Cherry Republic Store and election reports for the 2020 presidential election.
“They have the audacity to continue to play games and send us articles in response to our FOIA,” Elder said. “We didn’t want to file this lawsuit, but when I get responses like this, I have no choice.”
The lawsuit seeks to determine if MSU violated the Open Meetings Act, have the plaintiffs’ information request fulfilled and possibly see if they can’t make the trustees have to perform a redo public vote on releasing the documents.
MSU communications gave a “no comment” response to the lawsuit.
Former MSU employees, including former university president Lou Anna K. Simon, had criminal charges filed against them by the Attorney General’s Office for their reported knowledge of Nassar’s abuse prior to 2016.
The charges against Simon were dismissed in May 2020.
The state Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Kathie Klages, former gymnastics coach for MSU who was sentenced to 90 days in jail for lying to investigators about her knowledge of Nassar’s abuse.
Two women testified in Klages’ case that when they were young teens in 1997, they told Klages that Nassar had assaulted them. One of the women, Larissa Boyce, testified in November of 2018 that Klages held up a piece of paper in front of her and said there would be serious consequences for Boyce if she made a report.
Signs held by survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse at an announcement of legal action against Michigan State University on July 27, 2023 in front of one of MSU’s entrance signs.
“I am standing here representing my 16-year-old self who was silenced and humiliated 23 years ago and, unfortunately, all of the hundreds of girls that were abused after me,” Boyce said in 2018, according to The Associated Press.
The Court of Appeals did not determine whether Klages had told the truth to investigators, but simply that her interview with police did not cause anyone to get away with a crime, which was part of the charge, according to The Associated Press.
Nassar’s boss at MSU, former Dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine William Strampel, was found guilty in June 2019 of willful neglect for failing to implement safety measures for patients after MSU held an investigation into a report of sexual assault by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment in 2014. Strampel was also convicted misconduct after multiple women testified with stories of sexual harassment by the doctor, including former students detailing how it was made clear he would stand in their way of becoming health professionals.
Before going off to college, Maurer was a teen gymnast in Eaton County, just starting her high school career, when the Nassar trials were going on, Maurer told the Advance. She had a written victim impact statement read on her behalf in Ingham County as her and her family decided it wasn’t in the best interest of her well-being to be pulled out of school and wait for her turn to face her abuser.
Maurer said if this lawsuit or telling her story now as an adult helps one person, it was worth it.
“I only ever had that statement read on my behalf and I should have said so much more,” Maurer said. “Now it’s just really empowering to be able to speak to what a 10-year-old me that was being abused couldn’t say and now standing up for her, I just think it’s really empowering to do that.”
authored by Anna Liz Nichols
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2023%2F07%2F27%2Fnassar-survivors-sue-msu-claim-board-met-in-secret-over-blocking-documents-release%2F