Dey col - MSU Simon

Former Michigan State President Lou-Anna Simon testifies in June 2018 before a Senate subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Simon has been charged with lying to police conducting an investigation of Larry Nassar's sexual abuse.

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When people are cornered, they’ll often act instinctively — and sometimes foolishly — to try and worm their way out of their jam.

That’s because lying works most — but not all — of the time.

Consider the sad example of Lou-Anna K. Simon, the once revered president of Michigan State University. She’s “once revered” because the 72-year-old Simon is among a number of MSU officials who were caught up in the sex scandal involving Dr. Larry Nassar, a physician in its College of Medicine who treated the school’s female athletes as well as those for the USA Gymnastics team.

The Nassar scandal first became public in 2016, when the Indianapolis Star reported that a number of women alleged Nassar sexually assaulted them in the course of seeing them as patients.

That disclosure led to more revelations; eventually many dozens of women came forward to accuse Nassar of similar misdeeds.

Convicted of a variety of state and federal crimes, Nassar is serving a life sentence.

Why did the Nassar scandal blow sky high, drawing feverish national attention and costing MSU dearly in money and prestige?

At least partly because those who supervised him were too indifferent to or skeptical of allegations of misconduct to oversee a professional criminal investigation during the early stages of what became Nassar’s serial criminality.

That’s where Simon comes into the picture.

Eaton County (Mich.) Judge Julie Reincke this week found “probable cause” to believe that Simon lied to police investigators during a May 2018 interview about what she knew about Nassar and when she knew it.

The judge ordered that Simon go to trial on four charges of giving false or misleading answers to Michigan State Police investigators.

It’s Simon’s position that she did not become aware of the Nassar problem until 2016. But prosecutors contend that evidence shows Simon was told in 2014 about allegations against Nassar when underlings brought information to her that was so “shocking” it could not be forgotten.

Here’s the question and answer during the 2018 interview that got Simon into such serious legal trouble.

Question: "Were you aware of any prior investigations — you know, before the story broke in the news — were you aware of any prior investigation with Larry Nassar or, your know, misconduct for that matter, anything?"

Simon: "I was aware that in 2014 there was a sport medicine doc who was subject to a review. But I was not aware of any substance of that review, the nature of the complaint — that was all learned in ’16 after it became clear in the newspaper."

Here’s the drill — when the bad stuff hits the fan, those in charge minimize and mislead to distance themselves from responsibility for what’s gone wrong.

Nassar is a worst-case scenario. That’s why those in responsible positions immediately ducked for cover, Simon included. She tried to keep her job but was eventually fired.

Of course, it’s hard to prove someone like Simon intentionally lied to or misled investigators.

After all, the relevant time period was 2014, and she was interviewed in 2018. Couldn’t she have had an understandable memory lapse?

That’s why her lawyer predicted an acquittal.

“We plan to vigorously defend Dr. Simon and fully expect to prevail in circuit court,” said Lee Silver, one of a team of defense lawyers Michigan State is paying to represent Simon.

Prosecutors will rely on a chain of events that began in May 2014 when MSU student Amanda Thomashow filed a complaint alleging Nassar groped her during an office visit, stopping only when Thomashow removed his hands from her body.

After receiving the complaint on May 15, 2014, Title IX investigator Kristine Moore passed the details on to Title IX coordinator Paulette Granberry-Russell.

Granberry-Russell then scheduled a May 16, 2014, meeting with Simon, and notes from the meeting suggest their conversation went into considerable detail.

Granberry-Russell’s file folder included references to “Sports Medicine, Dr. Nassar, SA,” while Simon’s file folder referred to a “COM incident.”

("SA" stands for sexual assault and "COM" for college of medicine.)

Simon’s “COM incident” may be vague enough to distance her from some specifics. But the judge found this flurry of events “indicates the allegations against Nassar aroused serious, very significant concern.”

“It is not credible to believe that Simon would have heard even the outline of Thomashow’s story, and forgotten it,” the judge wrote in a six-page opinion.

Noting that Simon’s reputation as MSU president was one of being “very responsible and dedicated,” the judge said that “forgetting about the Thomashow allegations against Dr. Nassar does not match that description.”

What a tangled web people weave when they opt to deceive or are perceived as trying to do so.

The Nassar scandal has badly scarred MSU, just like the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal at Penn State did. Several top administrators at PSU were convicted of criminal offenses for mishandling that investigation.

Among them was former Penn State President Graham Spanier. He was convicted on March 24, 2017, of a misdemeanor child endangerment charge that was overturned two years later by a federal district judge.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.