Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer touts her record as Ingham County prosecutor in restoring integrity to an office that had been rocked by a sex scandal, and in her commitment to combat sexual assault on college campuses.
Fighting sexual assault is an issue critical to Whitmer, and a very personal one. In 2013, on the floor of the Michigan Senate, she shared a story of being raped while in college as lawmakers debated legislation that would require the purchase of an insurance rider to cover abortion services, even in cases of rape or incest.
But her tenure as county prosecutor has come under fire recently, with a law enforcement official alleging she was reluctant to prosecute a Michigan State University physician, Larry Nassar, who molested more than 100 girls and young women under the guise of performing sports treatments or examinations.
Former Michigan State University physician and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar has been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges. He still faces sentencing for molesting more than 100 girls under the guise of performing treatment as a sports physician.
The Nassar case could follow Whitmer and Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette (also a candidate for governor) throughout this year’s campaign, should they win their respective primaries. Schuette’s office ultimately charged Nassar with criminal sexual conduct for incidents in Ingham and Eaton counties; sentencing is happening this week.
“As Ingham County Prosecutor,” Whitmer says on her campaign website, “I implemented a new domestic violence unit, and am committed to bringing together university officials, law enforcement, students, and legislators to end sexual assaults on college campuses.”
But her claim of being a protector of assault victims has been challenged by an account from Michigan State University Police Chief Jim Dunlap, who told The Detroit News in December that Whitmer wanted to focus on the child pornography charges against Nassar — which ultimately were charged at the federal level — instead of also pursuing sexual assault cases against Nassar, because child porn would be “relatively easy to convict on.”
Whitmer strongly denies she waffled on pursuing the assault claims.
After a lengthy career in the Michigan Legislature, including as Senate Minority Leader, Whitmer served as Ingham County prosecutor for six months in 2016 following the resignation of longtime prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III. Dunnings pleaded guilty to prostitution-related charges after investigators found he’d paid multiple women for sex over several years.
She created a domestic violence unit within the prosecutor’s office and assigned an assistant prosecutor to work on those cases, according to Ingham County.
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And she became involved in the Nassar case. Nassar, a former MSU physician and USA Gymnastics team doctor, recently was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges. He faces sentencing this week on state charges for sexually molesting more than 100 girls or young women during sports examinations.
Whitmer has called for an independent investigation into MSU’s handling of the Nassar case, as well as for MSU President Lou Anna Simon to resign.
Then, in December, Dunlap, the MSU police chief, suggested in media reports that Whitmer was willing to take the easier road to prosecuting Nassar, by charging him with child porn and avoiding the more difficult-to-prove allegations of sexual abuse collected by police investigators.
“She told us in a meeting that her decision was to move forward on the child sexually abusive material and not the criminal sexual assaults,” Dunlap told The Detroit News. “The big issue is we wanted to move forward on the (assault) cases and not settle for the (pornography) case.”
Dunlap did not respond to multiple messages from Truth Squad about his characterization of that meeting. An MSU spokesman declined to comment, referring questions to Dunlap.
Whitmer told Truth Squad in an interview that police provided enough information to gain her office's support for the search warrant of Nassar's home, which led to the discovery of the child pornography.
But she said the department never provided more detailed police reports that would support the issuance of an arrest warrant for assault. She said the police never requested such a warrant, which she said is a necessity before a prosecutor can proceed.
"Before any prosecutor can bring charges, the police have to bring police reports and make a warrant request, an arrest warrant request," Whitmer said. "(The) Michigan State police department never brought police reports to the Ingham County prosecutor's office, nor did they make an arrest warrant request. They decided to go to the attorney general for that because (of) the fact the crimes took place in multiple counties."
Whitmer said it was after her October 2016 meeting with Dunlap that Dunlap went to the state attorney general's office.
"We were talking about jurisdiction and strategy, and the decision to go to the attorney general came as a result of that," she said.
The state attorney general, not the county prosecutor, was the right office to pursue charges because the alleged assault incidents took place in more than one county, she said.
Lisa McCormick, chief assistant prosecutor for Ingham County, confirmed Whitmer’s account of events to Truth Squad.
“I just absolutely disagree” with Dunlap’s characterization, McCormick said. “I don’t know how we could ever be reluctant to charge anyone when he never provided us with the police reports.”
McCormick said the office never received police reports, warrant requests or witness lists from MSU’s police department that would have allowed county prosecutors to determine appropriate charges.
“There is no way for a prosecutor to charge someone without the warrant request, the witness list and the police report,” she said, adding: “It would be unethical to do otherwise.”
In a 2016 email exchange between Whitmer and Dunlap, first requested under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act by Gongwer News Service, and provided to Truth Squad, Whitmer told the chief her office was “eager to read any and all police reports you send our way.”
“I believe we share the dual goals of protecting the victim and ensuring we are successful in getting the maximum penalty for the defendant,” she wrote on Oct. 5, 2016. “And while I understand your desire to make an arrest as soon as possible, I hope you understand that we think it is important to flesh out the issues in the case now that the (U.S. attorney’s office) is involved.”
Dunlap responded the next day: “As we discussed, I wanted to have the opportunity to look at the best approach regarding these cases including the Office of Attorney General. I met with their office this morning and we discussed the issues of continuity and multiple jurisdictions. They felt and I agreed that given the issues of multiple venues and the fact that we were asked to take the lead on other cases, the best decision would be for their office to handle the review of these cases. It is our intent to have the federal issues remain with the US Attorney.”
According to Gongwer, and emails provided to Truth Squad by Schuette’s office, Dunlap had emailed Schuette on Oct. 4, 2016, writing of victims in the case: “I am hopeful now they will get an advocate.”
Schuette wrote in response: “I am your advocate. Look forward to working with you.”
Schuette ultimately would lead the state criminal case against Nassar that resulted in convictions on criminal sexual conduct charges.
“It quickly became clear that Dr. Nassar committed crimes in multiple jurisdictions, including communities outside of Ingham County, and therefore engaging state and federal prosecutors was in the best interest of the victims,” Whitmer wrote in an essay published on Medium.
“I’m certainly no fan of our politically-driven Attorney General, but when a case grows beyond the jurisdiction of a county prosecutor, justice is best served by handing the case over to the statewide Attorney General’s office to prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law,” she wrote. “It was without question the right thing to do in the best interest of victims seeking justice, first and foremost. Further, consolidation of these cases into the Attorney General’s office was the right move for the victims of Dr. Nassar because it only required these courageous young women to relive and retell their horrifying experiences once, rather than in multiple courtrooms across multiple counties.”
Whitmer said in the essay that she disagrees with people who say she should have filed the sexual assault charges while in county office because it would have been a good political maneuver.
“To those, I would ask that you stand in front of Dr. Nassar’s victims and tell them that,” she wrote.
The rating: ACCURATE
Gretchen Whitmer is running for governor in no small part on her background as an advocate for sexual assault victims. The allegations by the MSU police chief raised questions about the fierceness of that advocacy in the day-to-day workings of the prosecutor’s office.
The publicly available emails and interviews with those close to the Nassar investigation seem to support Whitmer’s version of events. Dunlap made the explosive allegations; the burden remains with him to support them. He did not respond to requests for comment from Truth Squad about his email exchanges or statements to The Detroit News.
Both Whitmer and Schuette have said publicly that because the sex crimes were committed in multiple jurisdictions, the state Attorney General’s Office was the right office to handle their prosecution.
Clearly, there is always the possibility that more emails or other evidence will emerge that cast doubt on Whitmer’s version of events. We can only go on the documents that have emerged to date.
While Dunlap appears to portray Whitmer as a dithering bureaucrat, the available evidence suggests something else entirely: a prosecutor who put the interests of justice and sexual assault victims ahead of her own political ambitions by allowing the attorney general to spearhead the cases rather than seeking to prosecute through her own office.
Whitmer’s mantle as an advocate for sexual assault victims remains intact.
TRUTH SQUAD RATINGS
Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:
ACCURATE ‒ No factual inaccuracies in the statement and no important information is missing
MOSTLY ACCURATE ‒ While the statement is largely accurate, it omits or exaggerates facts, or needs some clarification
HALF ACCURATE ‒ Truths are interspersed with mistruths, or the speaker left out significant facts that render his/her remarks misleading in important respects
MOSTLY INACCURATE ‒ The major point or points made are untrue or misleading, even while some aspects of the claim may be accurate
FALSE ‒ The statement is false, or based on false underlying facts