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The Nassar scandal could have widespread, unexpected consequences

Jack Lessenberry

There is, to put it mildly, a lot going on these days, with the biggest story being the ever-mushrooming national sexual harassment scandal.

But there is another sex scandal of a different sort that is already a big deal and which seems almost certain to become much bigger and take on many more dimensions. I’m speaking about the events at Michigan State University, involving former sports medicineDr. Larry Nassar, who has been credibly accused of sexually abusing at least 125 women and girls.

Nassar has already pleaded guilty to multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct in two counties, and is going to be sentenced in January, presumably to many years in prison. But what we don’t yet fully know is what this will do to Michigan State, and – something very few have thought about – how this will affect next year’s campaign for governor.

Because affect that race it will, and here’s why. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the front-running candidate for the Republican nomination, is already seeking to use this mess as political capital. Yesterday, he demanded that MSU share a report prepared for it by their outside counsel, former U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald isn’t just any lawyer, by the way.

Ten years ago, he was the tenacious former prosecutor who went after the leaks in the Valerie Plame scandal in the Bush Administration, in which the White House deliberately leaked information to blow the cover of a CIA agent for political purposes. What may be remembered most about that was his insistence that reporters testify about their confidential sources, and that a New York Times reporter who initially refused spent nearly three months in jail.

Schuette has hinted that he may conduct an investigation into MSU, and you can look for this mess to be further politicized as time goes by. But here’s something you may not have thought of. Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer served as temporary Ingham County Prosecutor for six months last year, after the longtime incumbent resigned due to his own horrific sex scandal. The Nassar case first exploded into public view during the time she was in office.

The questions include, what did she know and when did she know it, and what did Gretchen Whitmer do about the Nassar case? Republicans are already whispering that she took no action, and that Schuette has now ridden in like a knight on a white horse to get the truth out.

Michigan State officials say they don’t plan to release the Fitzgerald report to the public. But it’s a public school and that’s unlikely to fly. And apart from partisan politics, MSU faces a much bigger mess that hasn’t even begun to hit: The costs, financial and otherwise, of all the lawsuits filed by those who say they were abused by Nassar.

The scandal at Penn State in which an assistant football coach was convicted of molesting young boys, cost that school a quarter of a billion dollars in settlements and legal fees. But there at least four times as many victims in the MSU case.

What this will do to MSU’s finances, reputation, and ability to recruit students and faculty is bound to be horrific. The only thing certain is that it is going to be a multi-dimensional nightmare. And we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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