After two months of trying to negotiate an interview between the Michigan attorney general’s office and former interim MSU President John Engler, things hit the fan on Tuesday.
That’s apparently when the AG’s office saw photos of Engler at an MSU basketball game in East Lansing on March 9th – despite investigators saying they repeatedly confirmed with Engler’s attorney that his client wasn’t going to be in the state before late March.
In a March 19th email to Engler's D.C.-based attorney, Seth Waxman, Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi told him the interview was off (Michigan Radio obtained these emails via a Freedom of Information Act request.)
The interview for the 28th is off. As you know, our agreement to travel to DC to interview Mr. Engler was contingent on his representation that he would not be in the state of Michigan anytime in the near future.
So you can imagine my surprise when I read the article below about Mr. Engler's attendance at recent MSU basketball games, including the Michigan game at the Breslin Center in East Lansing on March 9. Apparently, your client thought his presence would go unnoticed despite the fact that he was sitting front row, center court with 15,000 cameras in the building.”
Investigators have interviewed “more than 500 people,” including survivors and their parents, Grossi wrote, and “while it was quite difficult for many of them to speak, they did so because it’s important.”
“Your client’s brazen disregard for this investigation and his willingness to lie about his whereabouts is not only appalling but does a terrible disservice to the University…
“Since Mr. Engler is not going to voluntarily participate in this interview in good faith, we will explore all legal resources available to secure his interview in Michigan involuntarily including, but not limited to, the enforcement of his ongoing contractual obligations to the University. At the end of the day, if Mr. Engler's conscience can't compel him to do the right thing, we will do whatever we can to ensure that the law does.”
Later on Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sent a letter to MSU Board of Trustees Chair Dianne Byrum, complaining about Engler's conduct and asking Byrum to "demand that he participate" in an interview in Lansing within the next two weeks.
Why investigators wanted to talk to Engler so badly
For more than a year now, the Michigan Attorney General's office has been investigating how MSU handled the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case. That investigation has already resulted in several criminal prosecutions, including the case pending against former MSU President Lou Anna Simon.
In Nessel's letter to Dianne Byrum on March 19th, the Attorney General talked about why interviewing Engler was so important to her office.
"First, as interim President, Mr. Engler was hired to help stem the Nassar fallout. To do this, Mr. Engler publicly indicated that he had implemented several policy and staffing changes designed to address previously indentified deficiencies. These are relevant issues that fall within the very heart of our review.
"Second, this office is investigating the concerning allegations that former Trustee George Perles resigned from his postion with the Board in exchange for the forgiveness of a debt that he owed. Mr. Engler is a critical witness in that investigation as well."
Nessel's office had been trying to get a sit down with Engler for a while.
In a letter to then-MSU attorney Bob Young dated January 24th, Attorney General Dana Nessel asked for the University's assistance in scheduling an interview with Engler, after his "abrupt" resignation on January 16th.
Nessel said her office was subsequntly informed that "because Mr. Engler is no longer an employee of the University, the University cannot assist with facilitating his interview."
Nessel disagreed. Engler's contract with MSU specifically requires him to "respond and provide information" in these instances and "'provide reasonable assistance to the University' in defense of any claims that may be made against it," she said in her letter to Bob Young. That meant MSU could not only facilitate an interview with Engler, Nessel wrote, but could "demand that he participate in it."
Engler fires back at investigators
Back to Tuesday, March 19th, when Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi calls off the scheduled interview with Engler after seeing pictures of him at the basketball game.
Later that same day, Engler's attorney, Seth Waxman, fired off a blistering response, saying Grossi was mischaracterizing their conversastions, and that he "never represented Mr. Engler would not be in Michigan between our last conversation and the 28th."
In a formal letter, Waxman said that unless Grossi recuses herself from the investigation, he would advise Engler not to "participate in a voluntary interview with your office."
"Your conduct diverges so drastically from the most basic principles of fairness, justice and what is right that you have undermined the integrity of your own investigation, which may be a result of your lack of experience handling criminal prosecutions (this being your first), let alone a high-profile criminal investigation," Waxman wrote in an email first reported by the Detroit Free Press.
Engler has always been willing to cooperate with the AG's office, Waxman said, and Grossi's "decision to cancel his interview is most surprising."
"Your outrage about Mr. Engler’s travels is similarly surprising and misplaced," Waxman added.
"Since early February 2019, I have been communicating with you about making Mr. Engler available for a voluntary interview. At no time did I represent that Mr. Engler would not travel to Michigan as we discussed scheduling. Mr. Engler owns a home in Michigan. He has family in Michigan. It stands to reason that he would and does travel to Michigan when his schedule permits doing so. There has been no effort to hide that on two occasions Mr. Engler traveled to Michigan on weekends to see Michigan State University basketball games. Yet, you scurrilously allege that Mr. Engler somehow acted improperly by attending those events, as if he attended in disguise."
Waxman also said that the AG's office had assured him ahead of the interview that Engler "had not done anything wrong or engaged in any illegal conduct," and had signed off on a memo detailing the following points:
- “The Attorney General’s Office (‘AG’) does not consider Engler a ‘target’ or ‘subject’ of the investigation.
- “AG has no current information that Engler has engaged in any illegal conduct or done anything wrong.
- “AG views Engler only as a person who may have information about others (i.e., a witness).
- “AG believes that Engler may not even rise to be a witness because Engler may not have any relevant information whatsoever.
- "AG views Engler’s interview as necessary in order to perform a complete and thorough investigation.”
In response, Grossi pointed to previous emails where she referenced investigators’ understanding that Engler wasn’t going to be in the state before late March.
On March 4th, Grossi mentioned her concerns that Engler might be trying to “forum shop” so he wouldn’t be “subject to the same laws and restrictions as the other individuals that have sat for interviews by our team."
“Nonetheless, I recognize that he is sitting for this interview voluntarily and I appreciate that you have verified that he is not going to be in Michigan anytime in the near future. Thus, we are agreeable on conducting the interview in DC on one of the days [Waxman offered: March 26th, 27 or 28.]”
On March 8th, Grossi again referenced her belief that Engler wasn’t going to be in Michigan until late March.
“We have extended several courtesies to Mr. Engler already, including offering to fly out-of-state to interview him based on his representation that he won’t be returning to Michigan anytime soon,” Grossi wrote in that email to Waxman.
Waxman did not immediately respond to Michigan Radio’s request for comment.
The battle goes public
On Wednesday afternoon, AG spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney sent out the following statement:
“There is absolutely no need for Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi to recuse herself because there is no current case nor is she investigating John Engler. She is, however, the project manager for all of the investigations related to MSU including but not limited to arranging for our lead investigator to meet with former MSU Interim President John Engler. Attorney General Nessel has total confidence in Ms. Grossi’s abilities and she will continue to serve in that capacity.”
MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam said if Engler won’t cooperate with the AG’s office, the board should stop paying his legal bills.
“If Engler continues to evade the AG and not comply then we as a board should pull his indemnification,” Mossallam said in a written statement. Indemnification is the university policy where the school will foot a current or former employee’s legal costs for anything related to their work at MSU.
Asked how much money MSU has spent so far on Engler’s legal bills since his resignation, University spokeswoman Emily Guerrant did not immediately respond with an answer.
Also on Wednesday, MSU Board Chairperson Dianne Byrum released the following statement. “Until receiving this letter [from Nessel,] I was unaware that the Attorney General’s office had been unable to secure a meeting with former Interim President John Engler. I agree with the AG’s position that Engler should honor the request to meet and cooperate fully. The Board will review Engler’s contract and determine what actions on our part will help facilitate an interview.”
*This story was updated March 21st at 9:35 am
Reporter's note: this story has been corrected to fix a punctuation error and the spelling of MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam's name. It was originally mispelled as "Mossallam."