AG office ‘certainly hopes’ subpoenaing Engler won’t be necessary

By: - March 20, 2019 9:28 pm
John Engler

John Engler in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A dispute over former Gov. John Engler’s scheduled interview with Attorney General Dana Nessel’s investigators regarding his role overseeing the Dr. Larry Nassar scandal turned public — and nasty — this week, as Engler’s lawyer accused her investigation of bias.

Sign posted on the MSU campus on day John Engler resigned | Michael Gerstein

Engler had served as interim president at his alma mater, Michigan State University, until he abruptly resigned in January amid criticism of his treatment of sexual assault survivors. The Republican former governor blamed Democrats on the MSU Board of Trustees for forcing him out the door.

On the day that Engler resigned, Nessel said that she intended to interview him as part of the ongoing attorney general investigation into MSU’s handling of the Nassar scandal in which hundreds of young women accused the former university doctor of sexually abusing them.

In a letter published Wednesday by the Detroit Free Press, Engler attorney Seth Waxman of Dickinson Wright said his client wouldn’t agree to an interview unless Assistant Attorney General Christina Grossi recused herself.

Dana Nessel after a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

When asked by the Advance if Nessel’s office may seek to subpoena Engler to appear before investigators, AG spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney said they “certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Waxman did not immediately return an email from the Advance asking for comment.

Nessel wrote MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum a stern letter this week reminding her that the university has the legal authority through Engler’s employment contract to “demand that he participate” in the investigation.

Nessel is not the only one to raise concerns about MSU’s lack of cooperation. Bill Forsyth, the previous lead investigator under former Attorney General Bill Schuette, said last year that MSU stonewalled the probe by withholding important documents from an internal investigation.

Engler’s predecessor, former MSU President Lou Anna Simon, is now facing charges for allegedly lying to police about her knowledge of Nassar’s abuse.

MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum | Michael Gerstein

Grossi canceled a scheduled interview with Engler in Washington, D.C., after he was spotted courtside at a Michigan State University men’s basketball game last week, in what she declared a breach of the agreed-upon terms of that interview.

In the letter to Grossi this week, Waxman denied her accusation that Engler lied about his whereabouts in order to obtain a more legally favorable forum for that interview.

In emails obtained by the Advance through a Freedom of Information Act request, Waxman told Grossi in late February that Engler would be available for three days in late March and that he did “not have plans to be in Michigan during that time frame,” hence the investigators’ planned travel to Washington.

In an email dated March 4, Grossi voiced concerns about potential “forum shopping” — lying to law enforcement is penalized less harshly in the nation’s capital than in Michigan — but agreed to Waxman’s terms, noting she appreciated that Waxman “verified” Engler would not “be in Michigan any time in the near future.”

Someone pinned a survivor ribbon on the statue of former MSU President John Hannah | Michael Gerstein

In his response this week to the letter canceling the interview, Waxman claimed that the AG’s office “first offered to conduct the interview in Washington, DC or Virginia near where Mr. Engler currently resides,” and that “that request was not lodged by [Waxman] or Mr. Engler.”

In a Feb. 27 email to Grossi obtained by the Advance, Waxman wrote the following:

“We are available March 26, 27 or 28 for the interview… Mr. Engler does not have plans to be in Michigan during that time frame, so we ask that the interview take place in Washington, DC.”

When sports blog Deadspin published a report this week regarding Engler’s appearance at recent MSU basketball games, including their March 9 game against the University of Michigan at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Grossi wrote a scathing email to Waxman canceling the interview.

“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,” Grossi wrote. “In fact, in retrospect it’s clear that Mr. Engler’s refusal to interview anywhere but DC was nothing more than an attempt to secure a venue where he could lie to investigators with impunity.”

Grossi also cited a dispute in which Waxman asked to confirm details of the planned interview in advance, requesting “topic areas and lines of questioning” from her. After that request on March 8, Grossi cited the choice of venue again in her response:

“I already had concerns about possible forum shopping. You assured me that was not the case,” Grossi wrote.

“But, in conjunction with this request that Mr. Engler be provided with an advance script of his interview… we have now exceeded the threshold of preliminary discussions about logistical arrangements and are now bordering on attempts to control our law enforcement efforts.”

Waxman vehemently denied those charges, saying his was “not an unusual request nor does it compromise [Grossi’s] ability to conduct a fair and complete investigation.”

He expressed puzzlement at Grossi’s outrage regarding Engler’s presence in Michigan, writing in his letter this week: “At no time did I represent that Mr. Engler would not travel to Michigan as we discussed scheduling.” Waxman also wrote that “Mr. Engler never indicated he was unwilling to travel to Michigan to conduct the interview.”

John Engler | Wikimedia Commons

The attorney general’s office elaborated further on the agreement regarding Engler’s interview in an email to the Advance.

“In addition to the emails, Assistant Attorney General Grossi met with Mr. Waxman in person and spoke to him on the phone several times,” wrote Attorney General spokesperson Rossman-McKinney. “On multiple occasions Ms. Grossi discussed our concern with flying to Washington DC if Mr. Engler was going to be in Michigan any time in the near future.

“Ms. Grossi also advised Mr. Waxman that we were raising the issue because Mr. Engler had been seen attending Michigan State basketball games in early February,” Rossman-McKinney continued. “Mr. Waxman indicated that he understood and would verify with his client that he would not be in Michigan in the near future.  

“It was made clear that we would not come to DC if Engler was going to be in Michigan.”

In his letter this week, Waxman denounced Grossi’s decision to cancel the interview, and her investigation writ large, claiming she has “clearly politicized a fairly routine voluntary interview to serve whatever agenda and goals [she] secretly [has] in mind.”

He cited in his accusation of bias a passage in Grossi’s emails where she notes she was “embarrassed” as “an alumna of Michigan State” by Engler’s appearances at the basketball games, and accused her of “embracing a Deadspin tirade” in reference to the notoriously irreverent blog which reported those appearances.

“Your continued participation in the investigation renders impossible Mr. Engler proceeding with and submitting to a prejudged and patently biased interview,” Waxman’s letter continued, concluding that unless Grossi recuses herself from the investigation he has “advised Mr. Engler to decline to participate in a voluntary interview with [the AG’s] office.”

Rossman-McKinney told the Advance that “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,” Rossman-McKinney continued. “Attorney General Nessel has total confidence in Ms. Grossi’s abilities and she will continue to serve in that capacity.”

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.