Here’s what MSU got for paying elite firm $6.2 million to investigate 170 sexual assault cases
Two weeks after she was sexually assaulted in April 2018, a Michigan State University graduate student got an email from a stranger.
“Hi...My name is Ana Davila and I'm reaching out to you today because MSU hired Kroll to investigate a matter regarding [your case,]” it began. Davila asked if she could schedule a time to interview the grad student on campus, before signing off as “Ana Davila, Office of Institutional Equity Investigator, Kroll Associates, Inc.”
The grad student wrote back: Sure, I can meet with you. “Also, what is Kroll?” she asked.
A growing business: investigating sexual assaults on campus
Kroll Associates, Inc, as this student would soon learn, is a massive global intelligence firm. They’re corporate detectives for hire. When the Kenyan government wanted to figure out how its former president stole more than a billion public dollars, it hired Kroll. When the University of Texas was accused of rigging admissions, it hired Kroll. Even small towns like Salem, New Hampshire hire Kroll to look into issues like police corruption.
And for the last year, Kroll has also been working for MSU. Deluged with sexual assault reports in the wake of the Larry Nassar case and the #MeToo movement, the university hired Kroll in early 2018 at a rate of $550/hour per investigator. Starting in mid-February through August 2018, MSU gave Kroll 170 sexual assault cases. On average, the firm’s formal investigations took 304 days to complete, according to the university. Thirty-five cases are still ongoing.
For that, the university says it has paid the firm $6.2 million and counting, making this “the largest investigative contract [that] ever happened in the field,” according to one industry expert, and “utterly staggering” in both cost and scope, according to another.
But for all that money spent, in at least one student’s experience, Kroll’s investigation dragged on for almost a year, and was riddled with errors.
On the night of April 26, 2018, an MSU grad student and her four friends met up at Hopcat, a popular pub near MSU. One of their male colleagues had just successfully defended his dissertation, and he wanted to celebrate.
We’re not using the woman’s name at her request; we’re just going to call her L. She’s also asked we withhold the male student’s name, who has since gotten his degree and left the university. L and this man were both part of the same close-knit grad program at MSU, and while L says most of her professors have been supportive, she worries others may try to hurt her career if their department is publicly associated with this case.
L, who was engaged at the time of the assault and is now married, was friends with the defendant and had been helping him with his job hunt. At the bar on that night in April, their four other friends eventually left, but the defendant asked L “to stay and drink with him because he does not want to celebrate alone,” L later said in a petition for a personal protection order.
They went to a couple more bars, and the defendant told L he wanted to run to his house to smoke weed for a bit before heading back out. Once there, L says she started feeling seriously ill. This felt different than when she’d been drinking before, she says. Over the course of the night, L says she vomited twice, had to curl up in a ball on the floor and was “feeling dehydrated, dazed, and exhausted to the point where it became difficult to even breathe.” Yet the defendant repeatedly tried to initiate sex, L says, kissing her face, her breasts, rubbing her crotch and putting his hands down her pants while describing his sexual fantasies to her.
L says she was “begging him to stop several times,” pushing him away and saying she wanted to go home. Eventually, she says, he fell asleep, and drove her back to her car the next morning.
Kroll investigation drags on almost a year, even after defendant pleads guilty in court
On May 2, 2018, L reported the assault to MSU.
The next day, she got an email from the university’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE,) which handles sexual assault cases. They’d set up an interview with her soon, the email said, and referred her to the counseling center and MSU’s Sexual Assault Program. “They were amazing,” L says of the employees she met there. “It felt like I was being understood and heard…. [They] grounded me and made me realize, you know, the sexual assault was real. It happened and there are options I can take.”
One of those options was going to the police. With the defendant's graduation just days away, L worried MSU wouldn’t be able to do anything to him, even if the school did eventually find him guilty. With an MSU counselor’s help, she got a personal protection order and reported the assault to Lansing Township Police.
The officer who interviewed her, Officer Eric Lapham, was “compassionate,” L says. “You know, the police officer was trying to make sure that I was comfortable, asked if I had to stop at any point, [and said] ‘It’s fine to just get some water.’”
But her interview with Kroll investigators felt different. By then, the investigators had set up a meeting with L and a victim’s advocate on campus.“Going in, I thought I had the harder interview the day before [with police,]” L says. “This is now the school investigation, it should be less intimidating. But once I went into the room that I guess was assigned to my investigators, my feelings completely changed.” It felt more like an interrogation, she says, as one investigator ran through blunt questions while another typed notes. Kroll “felt more like, rapid fire.… It definitely felt like they were there solely to do a job.”
L was told the investigation should take about 60 days, with the possibility for an extension “for good cause.” MSU gave her a 114-page packet with details about the university’s procedures. Kroll investigators told her they’d be in touch.
Over the summer, the criminal case moved fast. In June, the Lansing Township police finished its investigation. The county prosecutor charged the defendant with three counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. L was summoned to court for preliminary hearings in July and August, where she says she spent six hours being cross-examined about every detail of her story. A full criminal trial was scheduled for January 2019.
Meanwhile, L kept reaching out to Kroll, sending them evidence she thought would be helpful and letting them know when she’d be traveling for her wedding.
“By the time the fall semester came around, I was wondering, OK, where’s the MSU investigation exactly?” L says. “What have they been up to all summer?”
In September, Kroll sent L a “Draft Investigative Report,” which Michigan Radio obtained.
Kroll’s report, after four months of investigation, had several issues.
For one thing, Kroll appeared to have interviewed the defendant's roommate about the wrong night. The night of the dissertation celebration and assault, the roommate wasn’t out with L, their friends, and the defendant, she says. But in Kroll’s report, the roommate appears to be describing a different evening: one in February when they had, in fact, all gone out to a bar together. The next morning, the roommate told Kroll’s investigators, “he didn’t see hear, or perceive of anything out of the ordinary and he didn’t see [L] at his apartment,” where the assault occurred.
L was “freaking out.” She knew Kroll’s records could be subpoenaed by the defendant's attorney in the criminal case, and errors like this could make it look like she’d lied to police about what happened the night of the assault. “So I felt like this report had to be spot on, or I was going to be asked questions about things that I didn’t even have control over, things I didn’t even say,” she says.
She spent hours writing seven pages of correction and feedback to send Kroll.
That fall, she asked Kroll for updates, but “they would tell me that they were waiting for [the defendant] to respond, and that they were almost done with the investigation.”
Yet L says she’d initially been told the defendant didn’t need to participate in order for investigators to handle her case. The packet she got outlining MSU’s policies even says “the investigation may proceed without the participation of either party.”
"I felt like this report had to be spot on, or I was going to be asked questions about things that I didn't even have control over, things I didn't even say." - L
In October, Kroll told her they wanted to re-interview her with some “follow-up questions.” They scheduled a call for the end of the week, at 11 a.m. At 10:57 a.m. that day, Kroll emailed L to cancel, apologizing for the inconvenience.
In November, Kroll sent her two brief emails saying they were finalizing their report.
In December, Kroll sent L a form letter, saying her “complaint will not be completed within sixty (60) calendar days as stated in the policy.” By that point, Kroll had been investigating her case for seven months.
The extension letter offered three reasons for the delay: “to accommodate the availability of witnesses, to comply with a request by law enforcement and to account for the complexity of the circumstances of the allegation.”
That didn’t make sense to L. The police had been able to wrap up their investigation in less than two months. Lansing Township Police Officer Eric Lapham says the only tricky part was reaching possible witnesses who were scattered across the country for summer break. He says someone from MSU did call him to talk with him briefly at the beginning of the case, but he never asked anyone to delay their investigation.
L says at one point in the fall, the prosecutor handling her criminal case did subpoena Kroll’s documents, but Kroll told her they’d be able to comply with the subpoena by mid-October. While the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office declined to comment for this story, an official familiar with the case says nothing in the case file indicates anybody at the prosecutor’s office asked Kroll to delay their investigation.
By this point, L had started going around Kroll and calling the Office of Institutional Equity at MSU directly. In January, she reached OIE’s assistant director, Deb Martinez. Martinez reviewed her case file, L says, and seemed to move things along: The very next day, Kroll sent her an email.
“We were informed about your call with Ms. Martinez today,” the Kroll investigator wrote. “We would like to call you tomorrow to provide further detail about the status of this case. Would 12:00 p.m. EST work for you?”
That email also included a new draft of Kroll’s investigation (the date on the first page of the report says January 14, 2018. It was 2019.) This time, L says, she only had to provide a few brief corrections and comments.
Later in January, eight months after L reported her assault, Kroll said they needed to set up a phone call to ask her some follow-up questions and clarify some of the feedback she’d sent them. On the call, L says she was asked to detail her assault all over again, from start to finish.
“They also asked dozens of follow up questions,” L says. And this time, while being questioned over the phone, “I did not have an advocate present.”
Meanwhile, the criminal case was coming to a close. On Monday, February 25, 2019, L sat in court with her husband as the defendant pleaded guilty to three counts of assault and battery. He cut a deal to avoid a trial, she says, and didn’t seem truly remorseful. “[But] just seeing that he had taken responsibility for something, I still consider that to be a win,” she says. “You have to take the win where you can get the win in this situation.”
Meanwhile, the Kroll investigation dragged on. Now there were new complications: The federal government was pushing schools to allow cross-examination during certain sexual assault cases. MSU had to determine whether L’s case qualified for that kind of hearing, Kroll told her.
On March 1, Kroll sent L a third, updated draft of its investigation. (Again, the date on the first page incorrectly says it’s 2018.)
Then, finally, on April 3, 2019, nearly one year after L reported her assault, Kroll sent L its final investigative report.
“After a thorough investigation and review of the available evidence, Kroll has determined by a preponderance of the evidence that Respondent engaged in intentional physical contact of a sexual nature with [L] without her consent on April 26 and April 27 2018, in violation of the Policy,” it stated.
What one woman wishes she’d known
Overall, L says, she was lucky. In her case, the defendant had already graduated and left MSU while the investigation played out. She didn’t have to worry about being safe on campus. And she had great support from friends who’d take her out, try to get her mind off the cases. But she wishes someone had been upfront with her about what this investigation process would really look like.
“You know, have empathy, just a little shred of empathy for how somebody going through this process is already dealing with a whole host of negative feelings,” she says. “Traumatization. Exhaustion. And those of us who did stay in school, we’re tired, we’re exhausted, we’re still trying to maintain a normal life and be the claimant in this investigation.”
And she questions whether private contractors should handle these cases.
“Why have these people who are very expensive, don’t seem to be effective, making all this money, you know?” L asks. “From the perspective of the firm maybe, they may not be motivated to complete things as quickly because [they’re paid] by the billable hour.”
L isn’t alone in that sentiment. Mike Nichols is the attorney who represented the defendant in this case.
“This is the second time I’ve had Kroll on a case, and I don’t know how to put this, but it seems like it’s more about the billable hour than it is trying to be thoughtful and deliberative,” Nichols says. “I want to give MSU credit for making some changes to the OIE [Office of Institutional Equity, which handles Title IX cases] process. But on the other hand, I can’t believe they spent that much money on these guys. The two times I’ve dealt with them, they seemed to be floundering over which case is which and who is who.”
A massive caseload, and $6.2 million
When Michigan State University hired Kroll in February 2018, the school was in crisis. MSU was promising transformation, a mea culpa in the wake of former sports doctor Larry Nassar’s serial sexual abuse. It was also under tremendous pressure from furious lawmakers, the media, students and alums to prove it could be better. Sexual assault cases had shot up 35% at MSU, according to the school, and investigations were taking an average of 80 days.
“We are taking active steps to make MSU a shining example of Title IX compliance,” then-interim MSU President John Engler said in a press release. “Eighty days is not only far too long for a response to a complaint, it’s totally unacceptable.”
Engler’s administration knew the university simply didn’t have enough internal staff to handle the growing caseload. And if MSU was going to respond to these cases quickly, it didn’t have time to find, vet, and hire enough investigators on its own.
With its global reputation, Kroll promised a simple, if costly, solution. “We would expect to complete the first round of investigations within approximately three weeks from signing of SOW,” Kroll said in its contract, referring to the Statement of Work agreement signed in February 2018. (MSU says currently, Kroll’s average number of days it takes to complete a formal investigation is 304.)
By hiring one of the most elite firms in the world, MSU appeared to be putting its money where its mouth was: As of late March 2019, MSU has paid Kroll $6.2 million and counting.
That number is “utterly staggering,” says S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC. It’s one of several companies now specializing in helping schools handle Title IX and Clery Act issues. “I started a business, I’m not against making money,” Carter says, but Kroll’s price tag strikes him as “just absurd.”
Between February and August 2018, MSU gave Kroll 170 sexual assault cases. Not all of those would turn out to be full, formal investigations, but that kind of caseload is still unprecedented, says Brett Sokolow, one of the best known (and most controversial) leaders in the industry.
“Uh, yeah, that would be far larger than normal,” Sokolow says. “That, you know, in my experience would be one of the largest investigation contracts that ever happened in the field …. I mean, the largest colleges and universities might deal with the volume of maybe 200 cases a year.”
That kind of groundswell is likely thanks to the recent publicity around sexual assaults at MSU, Sokolow says. “That would draw victims out in a situation like that and give them a higher case volume than anyone ever imagined.”
Good or bad, private firms are doing more of these investigations
It’s possible, Sokolow says, that Kroll’s investigators just got overwhelmed. “There’s no firm out there that could service that volume itself,” Sokolow says. He runs his own Title IX consulting and training company, TNG, and claims to have 3,000 schools as clients. Even if MSU had hired him, Sokolow says, he’d still have had to ask other firms for help.
And keep in mind, he adds, these are often extremely complex cases. Ninety percent of the campus investigations he sees end up taking “much longer than we think they’re initially going to take.”
“We are asked every day to arbitrate the worst night of someone else’s life,” Sokolow says. “It is an incredibly onerous responsibility and none of us takes that lightly…. I don’t know whether the ultimate solution is to have some sort of third party [that’s] neutral and external, but I definitely see more of the field turning to external investigators and external adjudicators to try and professionalize the process.”
Some victim advocates say that’s a good thing.
"We have seen many more universities, as well as boarding schools, bringing in outside experts to either help them in the investigation process or to help them improve their prevention and response trainings,” Jodi Omear, a spokeswoman for RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) says in an emailed statement. “We think it's a positive trend that an institution would bring in someone who has expertise in a specific issue to help. RAINN often works with companies, institutions, and nonprofits to bring a victim-centered, trauma-informed lens to these issues."
But the quality of investigations can be a mixed bag, regardless of what you pay for it, says Katherine McGerald, the executive director of SurvJustice, a national nonprofit that provides legal help for victims of campus sexual assault.
“I’ve seen very good investigators who are trauma informed and understand what they’re doing.… To me, that’s the most important thing, is that they be skilled investigators.” But others don’t have the right training or background, and make major mistakes. “And we see that a lot, where the investigators don’t have the experience necessary to assess what’s credible.”
But one thing’s consistent: these cases are taking a long time to investigate.
“Yeah, that’s one of the biggest things we’re seeing,” McGerald says. Even when schools recognize they need to hire outside help, it’d be better if they were just “upfront and honest, and said, like, ‘We don’t have enough people to do this, please be patient with us.’”
Searching for a long-term solution
By August of 2018, MSU decided to stop giving Kroll new investigations, says MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant.
“Kroll came on board with MSU last year during a time of great need,” she says. “They helped the university get a handle on cases during an influx of reporting.” But since August, the school has been opting for “other, more cost-effective contractors to assist with investigations.”
Asked whether that’s because Kroll was too expensive or wasn’t delivering what it promised, Guerrant says it was “a combination of both.”
“We’re certainly … investing a lot of money in this, and we want it to be done well,” she says. “We want to be good stewards of the money and get the [right] results.”
"Why have these people who are very expensive, don't seem to be effective, making all this money, you know? From the perspective of the firm maybe, they may not be motivated to complete things as quickly because [they're paid] by the billable hour." - L
Michigan Radio reached out to Kroll Associates and gave an overview of this story, asking for comment and to speak with someone who could provide context for L’s investigation and the overall work Kroll did for MSU.
In response, a spokeswoman sent this statement: “As a matter of policy, Kroll, a division of Duff & Phelps, does not comment on the specifics of particular client relationships or ongoing engagements.”
Meanwhile, at MSU, one less expensive option is the Detroit-based law firm Miller Canfield, which is giving MSU at least a “10% discount off our standard rates,” according to its contract. Miller Canfield investigators are charging between $295 to $395 per hour (Kroll charges $550.) Then there's INCompliance Consulting, whose investigators are working at a rate of $245 to $285 an hour. As of April 2, MSU says it’s paid INCompliance $704,000, with another $176,800 going to Miller Canfield’s investigators.
By now, the university has had time to add internal positions, too, with 21 MSU staff members currently working on sexual assault investigations. The Office of Institutional Equity, which handles these investigations, added 12 new positions in 2018, spokeswoman Emily Guerrant says.
Add in Kroll’s team, which is still working on 35 MSU cases, plus employees from the other two firms, and MSU is paying 73 people to work on these cases. That includes “case managers, administrative support, supervisors and at least in MSU’s situation, prevention educators and staff that helps connect claimants to services on campus,” Guerrant says.
Ideally, MSU would like to be able to handle all of these investigations in-house. But right now, that doesn’t seem practical.
“I just don’t foresee a point right now where it’s possible to handle these internally,” Guerrant says, given the current caseload. It’s a good thing more people feel they can come forward to report assault, she says, and the university “is learning a lot, working out the kinks of that system … and looking for options that could make this better, make this process better, for survivors.”