MSU board says it can’t force Engler to talk with AG

A statue on MSU's campus adorned with a teal ribbon
A survivor ribbon pinned on the statue of former MSU President John Hannah after John Engler's resignation | Michael Gerstein

The chair of Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees told the Advance this week that the university cannot compel former interim President John Engler to sit for an interview with Attorney General Dana Nessel, contradicting a recent claim from the latter.

The attorney general’s office is continuing an investigation into the university’s handling of the Dr. Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, which began under Nessel’s predecessor, Bill Schuette.

Dana Nessel
Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at the Planned Parenthood summit, April 16, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“Section 10(d) of Mr. Engler’s employment contract requires that Mr. Engler ‘respond and provide information’ regarding matters within his knowledge even after his employment with the University has concluded,’” Nessel wrote in a letter to MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum on March 19.

“Thus, it appears that the University has ample legal authority to not only facilitate our interview with Mr. Engler but to demand that he participate in it.”

Byrum told the Advance this week that the board has no such power.

“He doesn’t have a contract; he donated his salary back, and has no fringe benefits, so on that we don’t have much to bargain [with] … we don’t have any leverage,” Byrum said.

Engler, a GOP former governor, resigned in January after it appeared the board had enough votes to oust him after his latest comments that seemed to disparage Nassar survivors.

Brian Mosallam, the first member of MSU’s board to call for Engler’s resignation last year, echoed Byrum’s claim while suggesting an alternate means of ensuring Engler’s cooperation with the state investigation of the Nassar scandal.

“We can not compel him to cooperate, but we are paying his legal bills and we need to explore the idea of pulling his indemnification if continues this insubordination,” Mosallam wrote in an email.

Dickinson Wright, the Detroit firm representing Engler, entered into a contract with the university for legal work regarding the Nassar scandal in February of last year.

Dianne Byrum
MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum | Michael Gerstein

Earlier this month, Byrum sent Engler what she referred to as a “strongly worded letter” pressuring the former interim president to speak with Nessel’s office after a now-months-long back and forth.

“We cannot emphasize enough how important this interview is in our continued cooperation with the Attorney General’s Office and our desire to wrap up the investigation,” Byrum wrote in the letter dated April 9.

“Further delay in getting the interview completed is not acceptable. Additionally, the distractions caused by your attendance at MSU events, such as basketball games, and the resulting media coverage, has not helped the situation.”

MSU responded to a request for comment by referring to Byrum’s letter.

That letter followed a public spat last month between Engler’s attorney and Nessel’s office regarding the terms of the interview in question. The Advance reported on a series of negotiations that broke down after Nessel’s office accused Engler of lying about his whereabouts in an attempt to secure more legally favorable terms for his interview.

“Engler put himself into this situation,” Nessel said in March. “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.”

Engler’s attorney, Seth Waxman, has repeatedly denied the allegations of what Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi referred to as “forum shopping.”

John Engler
President & CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers John Engler attends the opening session of the White House’s forum on health care reform in the East Room of the White House on March 5, 2009 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Detroit News reported last week that in response to Byrum’s letter, Waxman said that “to allege that [Engler] has not cooperated with the investigation misstates the record and fails to recognize the patent bias and unprofessional conduct the Attorney General’s Office has demonstrated in connection with this matter.”

When the Advance asked Nessel’s office last month if it would consider a subpoena should the two parties not reach a mutual agreement regarding the interview, AG spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney said they “certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.”

The attorney general’s office declined to comment for 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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