AG’s office: Why we canceled Engler interview

Christina Grossi (left), John Engler (center), Dana Nessel (right)

Attorney General Dana Nessel said on Friday that she had never encountered a situation in which an attorney was asked to recuse herself because someone essentially said, “I don’t like you.”

Nessel and Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi were elaborating at a joint roundtable with reporters on their decision to cancel a planned interview with former interim Michigan State University President John Engler as part of the Dr. Larry Nassar investigation.

Dana Nessel, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Both defended against charges of bias and “politicization” from Engler’s attorney, Seth Waxman of Dickinson Wright, who demanded Grossi* recuse herself.

Grossi, the project manager for the Nassar investigation, pointed out that she had worked under Bill Forsyth, the independent special counsel appointed by Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette to investigate the matter. She said that Schuette had tapped her for the case.

Waxman accused Grossi of undue bias for pointing out her status as an MSU alum, and of having “politicized a fairly routine voluntary interview to serve whatever agenda and goals [she] secretly [has] in mind.”

“My interest is in ensuring that we figure out what happened with Larry Nassar, and I am an MSU grad,” Grossi said.

Interim President of Michigan State University and former Michigan Gov. John Engler, July 24, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. | Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The attorney general’s office canceled a planned Washington, D.C., interview with Engler, the former GOP governor, after a report of his appearances at several recent MSU men’s basketball games. According to the attorney general’s office, Engler and his representation had assured them he would not be available for an interview in Michigan.

“It’s important to me. Sexual assault is something I think should be taken seriously. I don’t understand how somebody can say that that’s political. That should be everyone’s interest, regardless of your political association,” Grossi said.

Waxman advised Grossi in a letter published this week by the Detroit Free Press that unless she recused herself from the investigation he would recommend that Engler not participate in an interview.

“I can’t think of a set of circumstances where anyone has said, you know, ‘I don’t like you, and so I am insisting that you be recused,’” said Nessel.

Someone pinned a survivor ribbon on the statue of former MSU President John Hannah | Michael Gerstein

“I didn’t feel as though there was anything that Christina had done that was unprofessional at any time, and I appreciated all of her remarks and I sent all of those emails and there wasn’t anything on there that I disagreed with.”

Grossi also elaborated on the reason for her decision to cancel the previously scheduled March 28 interview with Engler in Washington. She stated her belief that Engler’s camp had purposely misled the attorney general’s office in saying he would not be available for an interview in either Michigan or Virginia, where Engler resides. Both states carry harsher penalties for lying to law enforcement than in D.C.

“I try to keep an eye on the news, and I noticed that on Twitter [that Engler] had been at an MSU basketball game [in February],” Grossi said.

“I said, ‘I can’t spend taxpayer money flying an investigator out to talk to your client in D.C. if he’s going to pop up at basketball games.’ … There is no doubt, and I would make a representation publicly, as I have, that he was very clear on [that] he was to not be in Michigan if I was flying somebody out to D.C..”

Christina Grossi, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“That’s common sense. That’s human decency. That’s taxpayer money.”

Grossi said today that she confirmed that agreement in several conversations, both in person and over the phone.

Waxman disputed this claim in his letter, writing, “At no time did I represent that Mr. Engler would not travel to Michigan as we discussed scheduling” and, “Mr. Engler never indicated he was unwilling to travel to Michigan to conduct the interview.”

In emails obtained by the Advance this week, Waxman wrote in February that he and Engler were “available March 26, 27 or 28 for the interview… Mr. Engler does not have plans to be in Michigan during that time frame, so we ask that the interview take place in Washington, DC.”

Waxman did not respond to a request for comment from the Advance on Friday.

Grossi also noted that MSU is “exploring ways… to kind of help us ensure [Engler’s] cooperation,” referring to a clause in the former governor’s employment contract with the university that allows them to compel his participation in the probe.

Michigan State University, Jan. 17, 2018 | Michael Gerstein

“Engler put himself into this situation,” Nessel said. “It wasn’t, you know, as though he was conscripted to be interim president… he came into it knowing that there would be an investigation, and then for him to decide on his own later not to cooperate with it is particularly outrageous.”

The Advance previously asked attorney general spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney if the office planned to subpoena Engler to appear before investigators. She said they “certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.”

When asked on Friday if a subpoena would be forthcoming, absent Engler’s cooperation, Nessel’s response was terse.

“We’re evaluating all our options.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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