Nessel gives updates on Nassar documents, fake electors case and Chatfield investigation ⋆
High-profile cases remain on Attorney General Dana Nessel’s agenda as she told the Advance after the governor’s State of the State address Wednesday that she plans to continue her legislative efforts from last year for criminal justice reforms, while working on longstanding investigations — and even reopening one major one.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address, ladened with ‘80’s references, invited listeners to look back at the past year and take stock of the state’s past accomplishments.
Coincidentally, the address took place on the anniversary of the Jan. 24 sentencing of former Michigan State University and Olympic doctor Larry Nassar. He is currently serving essentially three life sentences from three courts on child pornography charges, as well as several charges of criminal sexual conduct.
Michigan State University to release thousands of Nassar documents, Nessel reopens investigation
Former Attorney General Bill Schuette announced in January 2018 that his office had opened an investigation into MSU, after several individuals said during their victim impact statements that individuals at MSU knew about the abuse as early as the 1990s. Nessel took over the investigation, but it came to a halt in 2021 after the university continued to assert attorney-client privilege on thousands of documents requested by the attorney general’s office since 2018.
But the MSU trustees unanimously voted on Dec. 15 to approve a resolution to release the documents. Nessel reopened the investigation that same day.
Neither her office nor the survivors of the sexual violence know for certain what is in the documents.
“To me, it’s always important and it’s always impactful to analyze everything and to find out what were the circumstances that potentially many people knew about the actions of Larry Nassar,” Nessel said. “It allows us to understand better what occurred, I will say that we’re not trying to give anyone’s hopes up. It’s been six years and [some of] the statute of limitations are six years.”
There’s not going to be nothing in the documents, Melissa Hudecz, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse starting at age 14 who’s now an occupational therapist, told the Advance on the eve of the sentencing anniversary, pointing at MSU’s long-running resistance to releasing the documents.
“It’s going to be something about who knew what when,” Hudecz said. “They’ve fought and held on to them for so long. If there was nothing in there, why would they not release them?”
For years, survivors and their family members have rallied on MSU’s campus dressed in teal and waving signs. They have also attended Board of Trustees meetings and tearfully and angrily begged the board to release the documents in order to finally have closure on what individuals at the university may or may not have known about Nassar’s sexual abuse prior to news stories in 2016.
Valerie von Frank (right) offers support to Melissa Hudecz after Hudecz addresses the Michigan State University Board of Trustees on Dec. 15, 2023. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)
“This is a sentencing anniversary. The perpetrator has been held accountable, but the people who allowed it to happen, very few have been held accountable,” Hudecz said.
MSU is meeting with the Attorney General’s Office this week to talk about a specific deadline for the release of the documents, MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant told the Advance on Wednesday.
“The resolution they [the Board of Trustees] passed at that meeting calls for the university to release the previously withheld privileged documents to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and also prepare appropriate support programs and processes for those that will be impacted by the release of the documents,” Guerrant said. “Since December, MSU has been working on both items.”
Survivors immediately took issue with a part of the resolution which says the university has the right to redact parts of the documents. Guerrant clarified the documents need to be appropriately redacted for compliance with privacy laws, namely the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).
FERPA’s function is to protect the privacy of a student’s education records while HIPPA’s function is to protect the privacy of health information. Redactions to comply with both are currently underway, Guerrant said.
Nessel said it’s a highly unusual situation for her office to be in, receiving documents that are redacted before investigators can review them. The investigation has led to criminal charges being filed against three MSU employees in the past, although not all the charges led to convictions.
The employees were former University President Lou Anna K. Simon, former Dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine William Strampel and former University Gymnastics Coach Kathie Klages.
Nessel said the documents could lead to a variety of actions from her office.
“We want to see what’s in those documents,” Nessel said. “We’ve been pretty clear about what we’ve discovered in the past. Obviously, there were a number of people that were charged. … I’ll have to see what condition the documents are in before I make any assessments.”
But most survivors aren’t holding onto much hope that MSU will hand the attorney general fully unredacted pages, Hudecz said. As for the “trauma-informed” plan mentioned in the resolution to help individuals impacted by the documents, that doesn’t line up with anything MSU has done for years, Hudecz added. Even the resolution being added to the agenda about an hour before the December meeting, making it difficult for survivors to gather and support each other was retraumatizing, Hudecz said.
And survivors are exhausted, Hudecz said.
The rock at Michigan State University, Sept. 16, 2023 | Susan J. Demas
The emotional and physical labor of showing up, demanding to be seen, and fighting a seemingly endless battle for transparency isn’t sustainable, and there are many survivors who simply can’t remain involved in the fight.
But Nessel and MSU have to include survivors in this process of releasing the documents, Hudecz said, and she’s hoping both sides make efforts to include them.
“It takes more than just a group of survivors to make waves. We now have a lot more support within the university and from the general public than when we started,” Hudecz said. “But for change to happen in terms of big-picture change. We can’t do it alone. These anniversaries are a reminder of how far we’ve come.”
Learning more about how Nassar was able to perpetuate abuse for decades, potentially within the documents, will hopefully give the state and schools and parents the tools to make sure nothing like what happened in the Nassar case can happen again, Nessel said. She points to the office’s investigation into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and how the reports on abuses the state is releasing could help curb violence in the future.
“People can still learn and so if we can prevent that from ever happening again; that’s our thing,” Nessel said.
Other investigations the office is engaged in will continue, Nessel added, including an investigation into former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), both for possible criminal financial activities in his office and reports of sexual assault.
It’s been two years since law enforcement began investigating Chatfield following a report from his sister-in-law that he sexually assaulted her for more than a decade, starting when she was 14 or 15 years old. After several months, Nessel’s office took over the case, which had started to include inquiries into possible criminal financial activities.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth
At the end of last year, Nessel announced charges for two of Chatfield’s former top aides, a married couple, Robert and Anne Minard of Bath Township. Nessel asserted that the pair illegally obtained at least $525,000 from 2018 to 2020 through a variety of fraudulent activities. The pair is facing several felonies, but Chatfield hasn’t been charged with anything.
More charges for those connected to Chatfield are on the table, Nessel said on Wednesday, although it’s been two years after that initial allegation from his sister-in-law. The investigation has taken a long time, but Nessel says there’s good reason: reams of evidence and documents that investigators have been reviewing.
“It’s not for lack of trying. We want to get answers. The public deserves answers as quickly as possible. We have to respect the process, we have to abide by the processes,” Nessel said. “I have a sense of urgency about it. I do. We’re trying as hard as we can.”
When asked about the timeframe that more charges could be filed, whether against Chatfield or his associates, Nessel said, “I would say we’re going to see in the coming months that resolution,” but there’s a lot involved.
Several of Nessel’s official initiatives in her tenure as attorney general have involved investigating sexual violence or trying to help survivors. Nessel’s office several times last year put their weight behind advocating for different bills surrounding sexual violence and gender-based violence.
“I’m a former sexual assault prosecutor. … I think that oftentimes, the men who ran Lansing for a very long time, they were less interested in that issue, unfortunately,” Nessel said. “We’re excited to have an opportunity to move forward on a lot of this stuff.”
Nessel said she plans to back future human trafficking legislation that is going to make its way through the Legislature this year, as well as other priorities.
“The guardianship package got through the House … so we’re working with the Senate to try to come back and get it established,” Nessel said. “The Consumer Protection Act, unfortunately, is toothless when it comes to a lot of the work that other agents do in other states and we’re trying so hard to get that amended. … We’re working with the House and the Senate to better protect human trafficking survivors.”
Defendants in the 2020 fake electors case appear via Zoom for a probable cause conference on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. | Kyle Davidson
Next week, the second half of the group of Michigan Republicans charged by the Attorney General’s Office for submitting false electoral votes for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election will be in court where each faces eight felonies carrying potential prison time.
Throughout the case, several lawyers for the total of 15 individuals facing charges have argued for the case to be thrown out for various reasons including a video where Nessel is talking about the case calling the group “brainwashed”.
“They legit believe that … somebody can’t even plead guilty if they wanted to because they can’t admit that what they did violated the law because they still think they’re right,” Nessel said in the video.
Legal challenges based on that video that have been brought by the defense have been shot down by the judge in the case at this stage. Nessel said she’s feeling confident that the cases can proceed and act as a deterrent in future elections that interfering with democratic processes will not be tolerated.
“I think that the evidence has been very clear,” Nessel said. “I think it’s important that people understand that they have to follow our election laws and if you don’t, there’s going to be consequences.”
authored by Anna Liz Nichols
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