FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2018, file photo, Michigan State University interim President John Engler runs his first Michigan State University board of Trustees meeting on campus in East Lansing, Mich. Engler is apologizing for emails in which he said Rachael Denhollander, victim of former campus sports doctor Larry Nassar, probably received a "kickback" from her plaintiff's lawyer. (Dale G.Young/Detroit News via AP, File)

Michigan State president apologizes for 'kickback' comments

June 21, 2018 - 4:49 pm

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State University's interim president apologized Thursday for an email remark about one of the gymnasts sexually abused by ex-sports doctor Larry Nassar, the latest sign of turbulence for the former governor tasked with steering the school out of the burgeoning scandal.

John Engler's apology came more than a week after the public disclosure of his email exchange from April suggesting Rachael Denhollander probably received a "kickback" from her plaintiff's attorney.

"I didn't give it the consideration it warranted," Engler said in a statement Thursday. "That was a big mistake. I was wrong. I apologize."

Some 150 of Nassar's victims have joined a public crusade to force Engler out of the interim job. Two university trustees have signaled they could call a vote during a board meeting Friday on whether to fire him, though it appears they lack the votes.

"John's apology for the comments contained in an April email that was released last week is appropriate and appreciated by a majority of the board," said Brian Breslin, chairman of the trustee board.

Denhollander said she appreciates Engler's gesture but remains convinced he cannot lead the university forward.

"I am disappointed that it took eight days and came on the heels of intense political pressure," she said on Thursday. "The most disturbing thing is that these comments are not isolated. They are a pattern that reveals a mindset toward assault survivors. And words don't change that mindset."

Denhollander said Engler, who did not address her by name in the statement, did not reach out personally to apologize.

Two trustees who originally voted for Engler's hire, Brian Mosallam and Dianne Byrum, have turned on him in recent weeks and signaled they could call a no-confidence vote. But they would need three more to clinch a majority in the eight-person board.

Engler was tapped in February to temporarily lead the university after the crisis surrounding Nassar, who abused hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment while employed at Michigan State.

However, Engler's presidency has become tangled in further public relations scandals of his own doing. The backlash reached a fever pitch last week, when media reports revealed the emails he sent in April criticizing lawyers for Nassar's sexual assault victims and suggesting that Denhollander, the first woman to go public with her accusations, was probably getting a "kickback" from her attorney.

"The survivors now are being manipulated by trial lawyers who in the end will each get millions of dollars more than any of individual survivors with the exception of Denhollander who is likely to get kickback from Manley," Engler said, misspelling attorney John Manly's name.

Another Nassar victim, Kaylee Lorincz, spoke at the last board meeting in April and accused Engler of attempting to pay her off without her lawyer present. Engler later said they remembered the events differently and that "I am sorry if anything said during the meeting was misunderstood." Lorincz plans to speak at the Friday board meeting.

In his Thursday statement, Engler said when he started as president in February he never meant to have an adversarial relationship with some of Nassar's victims. He said his speculation about Denhollander "hurt her deeply," and other survivors "suffered greatly."

Morgan McCaul, another Nassar victim who plans to speak at the Friday meeting, said in a written statement she also isn't accepting his apology.

"It is unfortunate that it took over a thousand signatures calling for his resignation and a two-day workshop with his employers for Mr. Engler to produce this apology," McCaul said. "I remain firm in my belief that he is unfit to lead the University in this sensitive time. His actions speak louder than his words."

For the past couple days, the board has been huddled up in a retreat ahead of the Friday meeting, in which it is expected to lay out its next budget and address its plan to pay a $500 million settlement with hundreds of Nassar victims.

Nassar is currently serving a decades-long prison sentence for molesting patients and possessing child pornography. The university fired him in 2016, two years after he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation.

Though Engler said he'll use his remaining time as interim president to implement reforms, the public meeting to lay out the budget and anticipated tuition hikes will surely be eclipsed by those who are fed up with Engler and want him gone.

Reclaim MSU, a grass-roots student group that has garnered at least 1,000 signatures in its petition calling for Engler's ouster, maintains "Engler has to go, now," said spokeswoman Katie Paulot.

"One apology for the months of anger and disrespect he has shown our community means nothing," Paulot, who will be a sophomore this fall, said in a statement.

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