A former Michigan State University track athlete says she felt outed as a victim of former doctor Larry Nassar after finding out a private investigator working on the university’s behalf inquired about her with a coach.
Kassie Powell, who had filed a lawsuit against the university and Nassar anonymously, said an investigator contacted an MSU assistant track and field coach she knows last fall. The investigator, she said, asked the coach about her character, among other things. Until that point, Powell said, no one but her family and close friends knew about her ordeal.
“I had no choice in now disclosing my own story,” Powell said in an interview with the Free Press this week. “This was my own story. This was not their story to tell.”
Powell's claim that an investigator checked into her background suggests the university is taking steps to construct a defense amid a growing pile of litigation.
Powell isn’t alone, according to her attorney, John Manly, who represents dozens of women who have sued the university, saying they were sexually assaulted by Nassar while he was MSU's employee. Manly said between six and a dozen of his clients have been made aware that an investigator has called people they know to ask questions about them.
In response to questions from the Free Press, a law firm representing MSU denied that plaintiffs are being investigated.
A statement from the law firm, Chicago-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, says an investigative agency was retained “to contact members of the MSU community to determine whether they had learned of, or reported, Nassar’s misconduct.”
Manly, though, said the inquiries have outed women who hadn’t yet gone public with their allegations. Many of the women who have sued MSU have done so as "Jane Does."
"It's like they're prosecuting these victims," Manly said. "That's what it feels like for them."
Legal experts say, in general, investigating the backgrounds of plaintiffs is common by defense teams in order to uncover anything that could bring the plaintiffs' credibility into question. In this case, MSU must prepare a defense in the wake of shocking revelations exposing the extent of Nassar's abuse.
Throughout sentencing hearings recently in Eaton and Ingham county courts, about 200 girls and women publicly described in detail the sexual assaults they say Nassar perpetrated against them under the guise of medical treatments.
“This is a horrible situation and, obviously, there are many, many women out there who have been abused and who need justice. But there are separate issues for the university defense, and their lawyers have a duty to use all legal and ethical means to represent their particular clients’ interest,” said Ken Mogill, a Lake Orion lawyer who specializes in legal ethics. Mogill is not involved in the Nassar cases.
Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said investigators are not to contact plaintiffs or their family, but reaching out to others generally does not cross a legal or ethical line.
“My view is, MSU’s got to figure out a way to get out of the case,” Henning said. “This has put them in an almost untenable position. In a normal case, you’re going to be aggressive in your defense. In Nassar’s case, how aggressive can you be because of the public perception problem that Michigan State faces?”
Manly said the investigator identified by his clients is William Kowalski. Kowalski is principal and director of operations for Rehmann Corporate Investigative Services in Troy, according to the company's website. The online profile says he spent 25 years with the FBI, most recently in Detroit.
Contacted twice by the Free Press, Kowalski declined to comment. He directed reporters to MSU's lead defense attorney in the civil cases, Patrick Fitzgerald of Skadden Arps.
Fitzgerald is a former U.S. attorney out of Chicago who handled high-profile prosecutions, including that of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Fitzgerald's firm, in its statement, said investigators are taking action to ensure plaintiffs themselves are not contacted. It says: "If a person they contact is a possible survivor, the firm has been instructed to provide information about law enforcement and support services."
The Free Press tried contacting the assistant coach that Powell named as being contacted by the investigator. The coach did not return a message.
Manly described inquiries to plaintiffs' associates as intimidation and contrary to the publicly compassionate stance taken by the university.
"They know this is going to get back to the victim," he said. "They know it plays on the victims' shame and it's going to upset them."
Matt Friedman, a partner in the Farmington Hills public relations firm Tanner Friedman, said he would hope that MSU and its lawyers considered the impact on victims when crafting their legal strategy.
"The question that I might ask in this case — is there a win-at-all-costs mentality? Shouldn’t there be a respect for victims in the process of trying to be successful in litigation?” Friedman said. “I would hope that those questions would at least be put on the table before a legal strategy is executed in a case like this."
MSU’s leadership recently acknowledged its previous shortcomings in attending to Nassar’s victims and pledged to change the university’s culture involving students’ health and safety.
“You have heard us say that we will work to ensure that this will never happen again,” MSU Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Breslin said at a Jan. 26 meeting to accept former university President Lou Anna Simon’s resignation, according to the Lansing State Journal. “For me, that is an acknowledgment, and I acknowledge it, that our university has flaws in its processes, procedures and lines of communication.”
The board, Breslin added, “needed to shift from lawsuits to focusing on victims and doing the right thing there. The litigation is the litigation. It’s going to continue and go where it goes.”
A spokesman for the university referred the Free Press to the statement released by Fitzgerald's firm. Several MSU Board of Trustees members declined to comment. Others did not return messages.
Nassar, 54, is facing a lifetime in prison, starting with a 60-year federal sentence for child pornography charges. Only after that would he start his lengthy state prison term for the cases out of Ingham and Eaton counties.
Powell, 24, said she recently left the university because she needed to get away.
Powell gave a lengthy victim-impact statement during Nassar’s sentencing in Ingham County Circuit Court, detailing the abuse, which she said started when she was in high school. She said she had planned to provide an anonymous statement for the sentencing, but the investigator's inquiry pushed her to come forward.
She said she was abused by Nassar dozens of times.
Addressing him at the sentencing hearing, Powell said she struggles to trust people and has pushed people away.
"Happy, extroverted, carefree adventurous Kassie has been lost," she said. "You stole my innocence, my voice, my trust, my joy and years of my life that I won't get back."
Contact Gina Kaufman: 313-223-4526 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ReporterGina
Contact Joe Guillen: 313-222-6678 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joeguillen