larry nassar

Susan J. Demas: Michigan Punts on Flint and Nassar Crises

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Just after Barack Obama’s election during the dawn of the Great Recession, his future chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, caught some heat for this observation:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Republicans like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have claimed Emanuel was arguing for Democrats to exploit tough times to ram through their agenda. In reality, Politifact notes Emanuel “specifically urged addressing longstanding problems with ‘ideas from both parties’ when a crisis presents the opportunity.”

This controversy, like so many of the Obama era (remember the right-wing roil over his “Between Two Ferns” appearance?), seems downright quaint today. We routinely careen from one Trump administration firestorm to the next, from Trump’s lawyer claiming he paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 for her silence on her alleged affair with the president to Trump taking a week to condemn domestic violence after allegations surfaced against two senior aides.

But here in Michigan, there just may be a lesson in Emanuel’s words. It’s tempting to feel some moral superiority about our politics compared to the gauche circus in Washington. However, we’re still grappling with a host of problems, as national headlines on the Flint water crisis and the Michigan State University Larry Nassar scandal can attest.

Both crises deserve a number of policy prescriptions to ensure they never happen again. Unfortunately, there are huge ideological barriers in dealing with the mass poisoning of a largely African-American city during the tenure of a GOP governor and a sexual abuse scandal that ESPN reports could ensnare a Big 10 university’s sacred football and basketball programs (an idea apparently so unfathomable that interim MSU President John Engler and several Michigan reporters have gone on the attack).

Hoping that our GOP-controlled state opts for stricter environmental regulations or mandates on sexual abuse reporting appears to be a pipe dream. That fact alone is a powerful testimony that Michigan needs some real change in this next election.

But there are a couple of common-sense legislative actions that should be able to net bipartisan support: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform and a process for appointing independent special prosecutors.

One of the reasons why the Flint water crisis has dragged on much longer than it had to is people living there couldn’t get basic information about their water and serious health effects. Neither the governor’s office nor the Legislature is subject to FOIA in Michigan, making us one of only two states with such restrictions.

There have been a couple attempts to expand FOIA, but they’ve stalled. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) last year sneered to journalists: “You guys are the only people who care about this.”

I’m pretty sure that parents of kids with lead poisoning and the families of 12 people who died of Legionnaires’ disease would have appreciated access to more government information.

Now some of the legislation proposed isn’t perfect and would set up a Byzantine process for getting information from legislative offices. But FOIA reforms should be the lowest of low-hanging fruit and a top priority.

MSU’s handling of the Nassar scandal is now being investigated by former Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth. Attorney General Bill Schuette, who’s running for governor, is directing the investigation, the Detroit Free Press uncovered (thanks to FOIA!), although he had claimed that Forsyth was an “independent special prosecutor.”

As the AG’s office charged Nassar with sexual assault crimes, this is an obvious conflict. Not to mention the fact that Schuette has strong ties to Engler, who appointed the AG to his cabinet while he was Michigan’s governor.

That’s led Lt. Gov. Brian Calley to propose legislation establishing a new class of independent special prosecutor in state law to avoid conflicts of interest.

Now Calley has a clear political interest here. He’s facing Schuette in the GOP gubernatorial primary this year. After watching Schuette snag endless headlines for prosecuting high-profile members of the Gov. Rick Snyder administration over Flint, Calley isn’t eager to see a replay so close to the August election.

Of course, in the Nassar investigation, it’s doubtful that the AG probe will target Calley’s colleagues again, as the focus should be on MSU administration. However, it’s easy to see how Schuette’s likely general election opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, could become a focus for her role as interim Ingham County prosecutor.

Calley argues that there are cases that deserve a truly independent prosecutor and he wants to give the courts that power. Alas, with Republicans running the Legislature divided in their loyalties between Calley and Schuette, this reform will probably get even less traction than FOIA legislation.

It seems that the Legislature is following the same dysfunctional pattern we’ve come to expect from the GOP-led Congress where gridlock isn’t just the byproduct divided government anymore.  

Don’t be surprised if voters demand better this fall.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Will We Learn Anything from the Nassar Scandal?

“You play word games saying you didn't know because no one believed. I know that. And the reason everyone who heard about Larry’s abuse did not believe it is because they did not listen. They did not listen in 1997 or 1998 or 1999 or 2000 or 2004 or 2014. No one knew, according to your definition of ‘know,’ because no one handle(d) the reports of abuse properly.” Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Dr. Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, taking on Michigan State University in her victim impact statement.

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Most people had never heard of the largest sex abuse scandal in U.S. sports history until Olympic champion gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman made it an impossible story for national news outlets to ignore.

It’s a reminder that even as prominent men — and some women — engage in predictable public handwringing whether the #MeToo movement highlighting sexual harassment and sexual assault has already gone “too far,” too many women’s stories still aren’t being heard.

Armed with their 2012 Olympics gold medals, Wieber and Raisman brought star power to a scandal involving a women’s sport most people only care about once every four years (if America has a decent Olympic team).

They were among the 163 women who gave victim impact statements in an Ingham County courtroom during the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar. The former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor has since been sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting his patients.

Nassar is clearly a monster, having written a letter to Judge Rosemarie Aquilina that he was a “good doctor” and his accusers were just “seeking the media attention and financial reward,” adding, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

After suffering for years in silence, Raisman found her voice as she addressed her abuser: “Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing.”

But the problem is bigger than Nassar. Raisman and other women unflinchingly described the complicity of the leadership at MSU, USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committee and the Lansing-area Twistars Gymnastics training center.

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, emotionally eviscerated MSU for playing “word games” with its public denials and said its officials “did not listen.” The Detroit News confirmed this in a blockbuster report, “What MSU knew: 14 were warned of Nassar abuse.”

The 14 officials included President Lou Anna Simon, who finally resigned Wednesday after her remarkably tone deaf response to the abuse scandal. She was outdone, however, by MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson, who this week said that Simon was “by far ... the best president we’ve ever had,” adding “there’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.” (Needless to say, no one bought his subsequent apology).

Three USA Gymnastics officials have also stepped down. But there remains much more to investigate about the coverup, especially at MSU, a public institution receiving taxpayer dollars.

And it’s fast becoming a political flashpoint this election year. On Wednesday, the state House overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for Simon’s resignation, which came within hours.

But let’s be honest. Most politicians ignored the scandal until recently, as MSU is a sacred cow in Lansing (aside from cutting state aid, which is considered a noble conservative goal). The Capitol is filled with proud alumni. Basketball coach Tom Izzo is revered like a Greek god — which is why he’s gotten so little flak for saying of the Nassar case, “I hope the right person was convicted” — and football coach Mark Dantonio is quickly rising to that level.

The Nassar scandal now seems destined to play a role in the 2018 governor’s race. Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP gubernatorial frontrunner, has said he’ll be reviewing MSU’s role. But the conservative Detroit News editorial page ripped his record, arguing his “indifference borders on dereliction of duty,” prompting Schuette to ask for a retraction.

On the Democratic side, businessman Shri Thanedar grabbed headlines for crassly calling for Gretchen Whitmer to drop out. He accused Whitmer, a rape survivor herself, of mishandling the Nassar allegations when she served as interim Ingham County prosecutor. But Bridge Magazine has reviewed the record and concluded that “Whitmer’s mantle as an advocate for sexual assault victims remains intact.”

Nassar’s victims deserve to know the truth. They don’t deserve for investigations to be twisted for political gain. And it’s up to us in the media to be a watchdog.

It’s also up to us to listen to victims. As Aquilina noted this week, it was investigative reporting by the Indy Star that finally shattered the decades-long institutional silence about Nassar’s crimes. Good journalism has the power to bring justice.

Right now, many reporters probably know of other sexual abuse allegations. But some outlets fear getting sued, even for reporting the truth. Some reporters may find it hard to report allegations about someone who’s a respected member of the community or a good source. Women know all this. That’s why so few of us ever come forward.

But the 163 brave women in that Ingham County courthouse have told us, over and over again, how devastating it is not to be believed. We all need to do better for them and countless others.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.