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AP FACT CHECK: Larry Nassar claims abound in governor’s race

October 11, 2018

FILE - This combination of file photos shows Michigan gubernatorial candidates in the November election from left, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican challenger Bill Schuette. Serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar is in prison, but that hasn't kept the former sports doctor from having a role in Michigan's race for governor. The two gubernatorial candidates have sparred in recent weeks over their roles in Nassar's prosecution. (AP Photo/File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar is in prison, but that hasn’t kept the former sports doctor from having a role in Michigan’s race for governor.

Democratic former county prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer and Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette have sparred in recent weeks over their actions in the prosecution of Nassar, who molested many women and girls during a long career working for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.

Last month, the Michigan Republican Party launched an online attack ad that claims Whitmer refused to prosecute Nassar, which Whitmer strongly denies. The state GOP has spent between $10,000 and $50,000 running the claim on Facebook, where it has been seen nearly 1 million times, according to Facebook’s political ad data. Schuette, whose office prosecuted both sweeping sexual abuse cases against Nassar, has also alleged that Whitmer “refused” to take up the case.

A look at two of the claims:

MICHIGAN REPUBLICAN PARTY: “Gretchen Whitmer refused to prosecute Larry Nassar on sexual assault charges.” — Facebook ad that began running Sept. 20.

THE FACTS: There is no evidence that Whitmer refused to prosecute Nassar.

Whitmer was the interim prosecutor in Ingham County, the home of MSU, when a former gymnast filed a sexual assault complaint against Nassar with the campus police and went public with her allegations in September of 2016. Later that month, authorities searched Nassar’s home and found a hard drive containing child pornography in a garbage can. He pleaded guilty last year federal court to child porn possession and received a 60-year prison sentence .

Two weeks after the search of Nassar’s home, Whitmer met with MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap to discuss the case, emails between them show.

Whitmer and Dunlap disagree about what was said during the meeting on Oct. 4, 2016, and The Associated Press has no way of knowing exactly what was discussed. In an interview with The Detroit News in December 2017, Dunlap said Whitmer wanted to move forward with charges in the child pornography case but that she hesitated to prosecute him on sexual assault claims, which Whitmer denies.

Emails suggest Dunlap and Whitmer were at odds over the timeline for proceeding with the case. Whitmer acknowledged in an Oct. 5, 2016, email that Dunlap wanted to “make an arrest as soon as possible,” but that she felt “it is important to flesh out the issues in the case.”

In Michigan, when police believe they have enough evidence for a suspect to be charged, they present the county prosecutor with a warrant request. The prosecutor then decides whether to move forward on the charges or not, said Delta County prosecutor Brett Gardner, who wasn’t involved in the Nassar cases.

“When it comes time to make a decision not to prosecute, that’s a very serious decision,” Gardner said. “We place that in writing so the investigative agency knows our basis for the denial.”

But Whitmer never had an opportunity to refuse or accept the case against the doctor: MSU Police never sent a warrant request to her. It’s worth noting that in 2015, the prosecutor who preceded Whitmer did decline to bring sex crime charges against Nassar.

Two days after their meeting, Dunlap asked Schuette’s office to review the case. He informed Whitmer in an email that 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,” Dunlap wrote to her.

Schuette filed the first of many sexual assault charges against Nassar in November 2016, calling them the “tip of the iceberg.” Eventually, charges against Nassar involving the abuse of more than 150 young women and girls were rolled into two cases — one in Ingham County, where he sexually assaulted victims while working as a MSU sports doctor, and the other in Eaton County, where he abused victims at a gymnastics club.

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GRETCHEN WHITMER: “I referred (the Nassar case) to my political opponent because it was the right thing to do.” — Whitmer during a Sept. 21 news conference.

THE FACTS: There is no evidence that Whitmer referred the Nassar case to Schuette in 2016.

Whitmer made the claim in response to the Michigan GOP’s ad claiming she refused to prosecute Nassar. But emails from that year show it was Dunlap, the MSU police chief, who took the case to Schuette in October of 2016.

When the AP asked Whitmer’s campaign for evidence of the referral, a spokesman clarified her position.

“Whitmer never intended to claim that she personally referred the case,” Zack Pohl wrote in an email.

Pohl said Whitmer supported the decision for the campus police department to refer the case to the attorney general’s office because the abuse was alleged to have occurred in multiple jurisdictions.

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