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Chicago’s former top fed swept up in Michigan State’s Larry Nassar fallout

Patrick Fitzgerald, former U.S. Attorney General for the Northern District of Illinois, in September 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Ex-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald earned a first-rate reputation prosecuting mobsters, politicians and terrorists for nearly a dozen years as Chicago’s top fed.

Now, Fitzgerald has been caught up in the fallout from last week’s sentencing of disgraced former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar. It’s due, in part, to apparent confusion over the role Fitzgerald was to play in getting to the bottom of the scandal.

Sunday, an attorney representing more than 100 of Nassar’s victims said Michigan State — not Fitzgerald — used his “well-deserved reputation as an effective prosecutor and an Eliot Ness-type of person” to shield it from criticism.

“And I think that’s reprehensible and despicable,” the attorney, John Manly, said.

Also being questioned is Fitzgerald’s assertion in a letter sent to Michigan’s attorney general last month that “evidence will show that no MSU official believed that Nassar committed sexual abuse prior to newspaper reports in late summer 2016.”

“Even after reports of sexual abuse surfaced in the press and MSU fired Nassar, many in the community strongly disbelieved the allegations,” Fitzgerald wrote in the Dec. 6 letter to Attorney General Bill Schuette.

That’s despite reports that Michigan State officials first heard of Nassar’s abuse decades ago.

Schuette on Saturday announced a new investigation of Michigan State “from the president’s office on down,” and he called on Fitzgerald to “turn over all information he has gathered in the course of his work.”

“No individual and no department at Michigan State University is off limits,” Schuette said.

Brian Breslin, the chair of Michigan State’s board of trustees, said in a statement Sunday that, “I have every confidence in Pat (Fitzgerald) and Skadden Arps, and I believe that they have at all times followed the board’s instructions. The criticisms being made against Mr. Fitzgerald and his firm are meritless.”

Detroit’s ABC affiliate reported this month that Fitzgerald’s firm is charging Michigan State $990 per hour and, in less than a year, billed nearly $4.1 million.

Schuette’s announcement came days after Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for molesting dozens of young female athletes and amid growing public pressure to determine what school officials knew and how they acted on abuse claims. Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon resigned hours after Nassar was sentenced Wednesday, and athletic director Mark Hollis announced his retirement Friday.

Fitzgerald left Chicago’s U.S. attorney’s office in 2012 and is now in private practice. In his letter, he told Schuette that his firm — Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP — was one of two hired to help Michigan State deal with the Nassar scandal. It aimed not only to assist with the anticipated lawsuits, but to help Michigan State cooperate — and not interfere — with law enforcement.

“As part of that effort, the firms were tasked with reviewing the underlying facts,” Fitzgerald wrote.

Manly, the victims’ attorney, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Michigan State made use of Fitzgerald’s sterling reputation and “led people to believe, falsely, that he was doing an investigation.”

That may be why, last month, Schuette reached out to Michigan State’s president asking for “the results of the Fitzgerald findings.” Fitzgerald wrote back to explain there was no “investigative report.” However, he insisted any evidence that others “knowingly assisted or concealed” Nassar’s criminal conduct would have promptly been reported to law enforcement. He pledged ongoing cooperation with authorities.

In the same letter, Fitzgerald distinguished the Nassar case from the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, in which he wrote that “high-ranking officials were aware of sexual abuse by an employee, decided to report the abuse to law enforcement, and then changed their minds and did not report the abuse.”

At Michigan State, Fitzgerald wrote, “it is clear that Nassar fooled everyone around him — patients, friends, colleagues, and fellow doctors at MSU. While many in the community today wish that they had identified Nassar as a predator, we believe the evidence in this case will show that no one else at MSU knew that Nassar engaged in criminal behavior.”

He noted that the FBI had looked into the matter, and he even criticized one newspaper column for not allowing for “the idea that the lack of charges might reflect that there was no criminal coverup.”

Fitzgerald also insisted that “to malign university administrators by asserting that they must have known about Nassar’s misconduct and assume that they behaved like criminals in a cover-up is just flat wrong.”

But Saturday, Michigan’s attorney general insisted, “it is abundantly clear that a full and complete investigation of what happened at Michigan State University, from the president’s office on down, is required.”

“We will put a bright light at ever corner of the university,” Schuette said. “This will be done right. Period.”

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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