A Michigan State University trustee who pledged support for victims of sex abuse has opposed them repeatedly in courtrooms as a lawyer, an investigation by Scripps station WXYZ in Detroit has found.
Trustee Dan Kelly was elected to the board of trustees in 2016 as the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal erupted. His university bio touts 25 years experience as an attorney representing school districts. In at least seven cases reviewed by WXYZ, Kelly represented districts accused of failing to protect students from sex abuse.
Kelly has represented districts like Roseville, Dundee and, at least four times, Warren Consolidated Schools in sex abuse civil cases.
Former Warren gym teacher James Kearly pleaded no contest to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct charges involving three young girls. In 2004, Kearly and Warren Schools were sued by the victims’ parents, alleging the district ignored more than a decade’s worth of Kearly’s documented fondling.
As abuse allegations stacked up, according to testimony, the district moved Kearly to a school that taught younger students in the hopes that he would be less attracted to underdeveloped elementary school girls.
While there, three second grade girls said Kearly molested them.
“He touched my privates, Mr. K,” testified one of his young victims. “Sometimes in the office and sometimes in the gym.”
During trial, Kelly told jurors the district couldn’t be held responsible for Kearly’s actions and, while there was no excuse for what he did, “the touching was always on the outside of the clothing… was very brief and…there’s very strong evidence that (the girls) didn’t know that it was inappropriate when it occurred.”
WXYZ shared Kelly’s words with Morgan McCaul, one of Larry Nassar’s victims.
“That’s gross. What you just read is gross,” she said. “When this is a leader and essentially the architect of campus climate, I don’t know how you can send your kids to Michigan State University and feel safe.”
The jury in the Kearly case returned a $2.1 million verdict in favor of the victims.
In 2006, Kelly defended a district accused of ignoring allegations that teacher Roderick Reese molested 11 elementary school girls. As is common in sex abuse cases, the plaintiffs filed their lawsuits as Jane Does.
But Kelly filed a motion to have the young girls' names made public, saying that the case had already been tried in the press. WXYZ spoke with a parent of one of Reese’s victims, who was 12 when Kelly wanted her name unsealed.
“It was kind of like, who’s on trial here?” the father said, who asked that we conceal his identity to protect his daughter. “It’s not my kid or the other parent’s children.”
The judge denied Kelly’s motion. The case settled for an undisclosed amount and, in a criminal trial, the teacher was convicted of child molestation. 12 years later, the father of Reese’s victim hasn’t forgotten what Dan Kelly tried to do in court.
“I was totally stunned,” he recalled. “Why would he want to do this to these children? They didn’t do anything wrong.”
In a January trustees meeting, Kelly apologized to Nassar’s abuse survivors and said, until recently, he had viewed the Nassar scandal through the eyes of a lawyer.
“In the back of my mind,” Kelly said, “I thought that this would be resolved in the litigation process.”
Attorney Mick Grewal represents more than 80 of Nassar’s victims.
“I think he viewed them as the opposition, not survivors,” Grewal said. “It’s clear to me that he’s not the right guy. It’s actually clear to me that everyone on the board is not the right guy or woman.”
Dan Kelly declined an on-camera interview, but by phone said he believes he can be the best advocate for victims of Nassar’s abuse. Those that have faced with him in court aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think he’s out to protect the victims, myself,” said the father whose daughter Kelly tried to name in court. “And being a defense lawyer, why would he? He’s out to protect the people he’s defending.”
In a statement, Kelly said:
"As a member of the MSU Board of Trustees, I am committed to working with Interim University President John Engler and the full Board in supporting the survivors of Dr. Nassar and addressing the challenges this matter has presented for the entire Michigan State University community. Each Board member brings their experience and background from their past that will help the university and survivors move forward. Because of the confidential nature of my work as a private sector attorney and my role as an MSU Trustee, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further."
Contact WXYZ reporter Ross Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466.