'If they're withholding those documents, there must be a reason for it': Nessel reacts to MSU's Nassar decision
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she's "relieved" that Michigan State University has decided to turn over previously withheld documents related to Larry Nassar's sex abuse. But the state prosecutor expressed concern as her office continues its investigation into the school's handling of accusations against the former sports doctor.
"We don't know what's going to be in there," Nessel told WKAR after MSU's Board of Trustees approved the documents' release on Friday. "We don't know that there's a smoking gun."
Nessel said it would be at least four weeks until MSU turned over the remaining 6,000 documents, a trove of emails that have been the focus of the state's ongoing inquiry into the MSU-Nassar scandal. Time is already jeopardizing future legal action.
"Having held on to those materials an extra five years or so likely means that for many potential criminal acts, the statute of limitations likely would have run," Nessel said. "It's possible that former MSU staff and employees have evaded criminal prosecution."
WKAR's Michelle Jokisch Polo spoke to Nessel to discuss the forthcoming release of the MSU-Nassar documents.
On her theory of what the documents contain
Our suspicion, of course, has always been: if they're withholding those documents, there must be a reason for it. And while I've heard it be suggested that there's really nothing that interesting in there, if there really isn't, then how come we didn't turn it over years and years ago?
On the impact of the delayed release
It's very possible that the timing of this release coincides with the culmination and the disposition of pending civil litigation, as well as the knowledge that some of these potential criminal activity now the statute of limitations [has run out] will eliminate the ability of our department to prosecute those matters.
On her message to survivors
We're going to try as hard as we can to put this back together to review the documents and to answer questions that we can possibly answer that I think the public deserves to have and deserve to have it a long time ago.
Michelle Jokisch Polo: What is your reaction to the Board of Trustees decision today?
Dana Nessel: Well, surprise. I didn't obviously know this was going be on the agenda. It's been talked about for quite some time. But I did not know that this was going to happen today. And my understanding is that perhaps there was some civil litigation that was recently wrapped up. But that's just as me reading the papers.
I'm relieved that they're doing it as long last. And I'm grateful to the survivors and the survivor community that just never gave up. And meeting after meeting, week after week, month after month, year after year, insisted that at long last the MSU Board of Trustees fulfill their commitment to this investigation and to providing the necessary documents, and to allowing us to close out this investigation properly. And when I say properly, I mean, having reviewed all the pertinent information and documents.
Jokisch Polo: Can you explain why your office needs to review these documents. MSU has provided thousands of pages of information already. I mean, what else is missing?
Nessel: What's missing is over 6,000 emails where the Board of Trustees claimed attorney-client privilege. Throughout the course of the investigation that was done back in 2018, MSU, even though they had themselves requested the Department of the Attorney General conduct this investigation, they consistently stonewalled the investigation.
They inundated the department with unrelated materials. They interfered with and impeded our investigative efforts and our ability to interview witnesses. So, it seemed as though the university didn't really want the investigation that they themselves had requested, which was a source of great frustration, right?
The taxpayers paid for this. We had dozens of staffers between the Michigan State Police and the Department of the Attorney General, both attorneys and investigators who reviewed these materials. But without those 6,000-plus documents, how could we possibly formally complete this investigation?
And our suspicion, of course, has always been: if they're withholding those documents, there must be a reason for it. And while I've heard it be suggested that there's really nothing that interesting in there, if there really isn't, then how come we didn't turn it over years and years ago?
So, we're looking forward to our ability to review those documents, and hopefully to answer some unresolved questions. But then again, we don't know what's going to be in there. So we don't know that there's a smoking gun.
And the other thing that I think the public should be aware of is that having held on to those materials an extra five years or so likely means that for many potential criminal acts, the statute of limitations likely would have run. Because not for all criminal activity, but for most crimes in the state of Michigan, there's a six-year statute of limitations. So by withholding these documents for as long as they have, it's possible that former MSU staff and employees have evaded criminal prosecution.
Jokisch Polo: The release of the documents has been a long standing dispute between your office and the university. Why do you think Michigan State trustees agreed to release them now. And you touched on this earlier, but is there anything else you'd like to add about it?
Nessel: Well firstly, I think without them having done this, there was just no possibility that the survivors and those who care deeply about them could really heal properly. How can you ever really get through the types of things that have occurred involving the Nassar-era events, when you never had a proper closure of the investigation and you've never had your questions completely answered?
So I think that that's incredibly important that we do that. But again, I mean, I attribute them at long last doing this to many things. One is that the survivors were never going give up no matter how long it took. And so it's not as though this issue was ever going to go away and it hasn't gone away.
But second, as I suggested, it's very possible that the timing of this release coincides with the culmination and the disposition of pending civil litigation, as well as the knowledge that some of these potential criminal activity now the statute of limitations will eliminate the ability of our department to prosecute those matters. But again, a lot of this is speculation on my part. And we'll find out more when we see those documents.
Jokisch Polo: Where does this leave the state's investigation into Larry Nassar's sex abuse?
Nessel: Well, I mean, I expect that there are discussions that involve that sex abuse. Of course, Larry Nasser has been held accountable. I don't expect that he’ll ever see the light of day again. So he's not going to harm anybody. But I think that the unresolved issues were, who at Michigan State University knew what and when did they know it? And honestly, are some of those people still there at the university? I suspect that many of those people no longer work for the University, but who knows what we'll find out?
But I think it'd be interesting to answer some of those questions as to how Larry Nassar could have gotten away with his crimes for as long as he did without there being any knowledge about it by upper-level staffers at some at the university. And what, if anything, they did to stop it before it finally was reported in the way that it was. I mean, it didn't come from the university, right? So it'll be interesting to see what answers we've received to the questions that have been long outstanding.
Jokisch Polo: What do you want the public and especially survivors of Nassar’s sex abuse to know going forward?
Nessel: Well, first of all, the Department of the Attorney General has never given up on this. I mean, we've always wanted to see these documents to see if they help answer more questions. So we're prepared to do as much as we possibly can to review these with all deliberate speed.
We understand that we're not going to receive them for at least another four weeks. But once we get them, we're prepared to the best that we can put a team back together to contextualize this information within all of the other information that's been reviewed. Remembering, of course, we had over 550 witnesses that were interviewed. Over 105,000 documents just from Michigan State alone. That doesn't include outside law enforcement agencies. So we're going to try as hard as we can to put this back together to review the documents and to answer questions that we can possibly answer that I think the public deserves to have and deserve to have it a long time ago.
Jokisch Polo: Lastly, I've heard from some survivors today that they're worried that a lot of it will be redacted. Do you have any of those concerns as well?
Nessel: Well, I mean, I will say, if we rely historically and how the university has handled this, I would be prepared for heavy redaction. But I hope that won't occur. And we look forward to seeing these materials and see what they look like. Obviously, there's a big difference between a few blackened out portions here and there and entire pages of documents that are unreadable for that reason. So I guess we'll deal with it when the time comes.
But I mean, after all of this, that they're finally going to turn the documents over, one would hope that they're not so heavily redacted that it doesn't shed any light on what was contained within, that information. So we'll see. But all I can say is that the Department of the Attorney General is prepared to do anything and everything that we possibly can to ensure that this investigation is completed and that we answer as many questions as we possibly can.
Jokisch Polo: Thank you so much for your time today, Attorney General Dana Nessel. Thanks for joining me.
Nessel: Thanks for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity.