Rape survivor Brenda Tracy to sue Michigan State, Mel Tucker for $75 million in damages


Brenda Tracy, a prominent rape survivor and anti-sexual violence activist, took the first steps Thursday to sue Michigan State University, its governing body and its disgraced former head football coach, Mel Tucker.

The intent-to-sue notices on behalf of Tracy and her nonprofit, filed in the state’s Court of Claims, are a mandatory precursor to filing a lawsuit against a government agency.

The crux of Tracy’s legal action is that her reputation was sullied by Tucker’s sexual harassment and subsequent threats, his release of her private text messages with her deceased best friend and business assistant, and the university’s failure to both prevent his misconduct and maintain the confidentiality of its investigation into her claim against him. Those actions also hamstrung her charitable work, damaged her future earnings and caused her severe psychological and emotional harm, the two filings allege.

She is seeking damages exceeding $75 million – $50 million for herself and $25 million for her nonprofit – for a range of claims, including breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

“Up until now, Brenda Tracy has had to remain quiet about the events of the past year,” said her attorney, Karen Truszkowski. “This is her opportunity to respond to the falsehoods and harms she has endured.”

University spokesperson Emily Guerrant said the school does not comment on pending litigation. Tucker and his attorney, Jennifer Belveal, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Tracy’s lawsuit notice comes six years after Michigan State agreed to pay $500 million to more than 330 women and girls who sued the university over sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, its disgraced former campus physician. The payment – one of the largest in history for a campus sexual misconduct scandal – came months after a judge sentenced Nassar to up to 175 years in prison.

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, right, hands back a signed football for fans on Saturday, April 16, 2022, during the spring game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. At left is honorary captain Brenda Tracy, sexual violence prevention educator.Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, right, hands back a signed football for fans on Saturday, April 16, 2022, during the spring game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. At left is honorary captain Brenda Tracy, sexual violence prevention educator.

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, right, hands back a signed football for fans on Saturday, April 16, 2022, during the spring game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. At left is honorary captain Brenda Tracy, sexual violence prevention educator.

The facts of Tracy’s case are well-known to many, first revealed in September in a USA TODAY investigation.

Tucker hired Tracy to speak to his team about sexual violence prevention in August 2021. By then, more than 100 college, high school and NFL teams had brought Tracy to campus to tell her gut-wrenching story of survival after being brutally gang-raped in 1998 by four football players, including two from Oregon State University.

Tucker expressed interest in Tracy’s cause of engaging men as the solution to gender-based violence. They stayed in touch in the days and weeks after her visit to campus, striking up a professional relationship and friendship centered on her advocacy work. Over the next year, Tucker twice invited Tracy back to East Lansing, first to be the honorary captain at a Spartans football game and again for a future training with coaches and players.

During that time, Tucker made a series of romantic overtures toward Tracy, who would tell campus investigators that she walked a tightrope trying to set boundaries with Tucker while maintaining their business partnership. Each time, she said, Tucker initially pulled back, then later resumed advances that increased in severity. The pattern culminated in an April 2022 phone call in which Tucker masturbated and made sexual comments without Tracy’s consent.

When the two next spoke four months later, Tracy said Tucker threatened to ruin her career if she spoke out. He said he would reschedule her planned visit that summer but never did.

In December 2022, Tracy reported him to the school’s Title IX office, by law a confidential process. The university hired an outside attorney to investigate.

Anticipating that rumors of the case could spiral out of control, Tracy agreed to share the case file with USA TODAY, which started preparing an article on the condition that it hold the story until the case ended, unless Tracy’s identity leaked.

Tucker and Belveal used a variety of delay tactics, including claiming Tucker was suffering from extreme mental distress, proposing settlements with Tracy and urging Michigan State to drop the complaint – stalling the probe for months, while he continued to coach and collect a $750,000 monthly paycheck.

Meanwhile, rumors of the investigation began to spread.

When word gets out, fallout ensues

On July 25, the day the investigator issued the final investigation report, two Michigan news outlets contacted university officials inquiring about sexual harassment claims against Tucker and his potential termination, according to an email from MSU’s Title IX office to Tracy, which she provided to USA TODAY.

USA TODAY published the story with Tracy’s permission in early September, after her name was specifically mentioned in connection with the rumors. Hours later, Michigan State leaders suspended Tucker without pay, saying that they and the university’s Board of Trustees knew Tucker was under investigation but didn’t know the details until they read them in the news.

Investigation: Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker accused of sexually harassing rape survivor

A week later, Michigan State moved to fire Tucker for cause, saying even his version of events – that he and Tracy developed a romance and had consensual phone sex – constituted a breach of his record 10-year, $95 million contract.

“It is decidedly unprofessional and unethical to flirt, make sexual comments, and masturbate while on the phone with a University vendor,” athletic director Alan Haller wrote in a letter notifying Tucker of his intent to fire him. “The unprofessional and unethical behavior is particularly egregious given that the Vendor at issue was contracted by the University for the sole purpose of educating student-athletes on, and preventing instances of, inappropriate sexual misconduct.”

Michigan State fired Tucker on Sept. 27.

“Your unconvincing rationalizations and misguided attempt to shift responsibility cannot and do not excuse your own behavior,” Haller wrote in Tucker’s termination letter.

Michigan State University Athletic Director Alan Haller speaks during a press conference regarding the football program in the wake of sexual assault allegations against head coach Mel Tucker on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.Michigan State University Athletic Director Alan Haller speaks during a press conference regarding the football program in the wake of sexual assault allegations against head coach Mel Tucker on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Michigan State University Athletic Director Alan Haller speaks during a press conference regarding the football program in the wake of sexual assault allegations against head coach Mel Tucker on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Eight days later, the university held a hearing in the campus case, which Tucker and Belveal did not attend. Instead, 14 minutes in, they emailed the Board of Trustees and several media outlets a letter claiming they had obtained new evidence proving Tracy had falsely accused Tucker in a plot for money.

Attached to the letter was a trove of text messages between Tracy and her friend and assistant, Ahlan Alvarado, that they had obtained from Alvarado’s cell phone. The messages outed Tracy’s private romantic relationship with another man and showed she had been struggling financially at the time she reported Tucker to Michigan State and then considered settling with him and the school. Alvarado, who was a key witness in the case, had died in a car crash in June 2023, after her interview with the school’s investigator.

Tracy obtained a restraining order against Tucker, Belveal, her law firm and Alvarado’s widowed husband – who had given his late wife’s cell phone to Belveal – to stop them from further publicizing their private conversations, which the order said included intimate details of their lives and business information. Tracy has since agreed to remove Belveal and her firm, Foley & Lardner LLP, as defendants in that ongoing lawsuit.

Brenda Tracy posted a tribute to her longtime friend and assistant, Ahlan Alvarado, on her Instagram account on June 29.Brenda Tracy posted a tribute to her longtime friend and assistant, Ahlan Alvarado, on her Instagram account on June 29.

Brenda Tracy posted a tribute to her longtime friend and assistant, Ahlan Alvarado, on her Instagram account on June 29.

On Oct. 25, the MSU hearing officer issued her decision, concluding that Tucker sexually harassed and exploited Tracy on multiple occasions before, during and after the April 2022 phone call. The officer found Tracy’s account more consistent, more plausible and better corroborated by witnesses and evidence than that of Tucker, who had made several false and misleading statements to the investigator.

Tucker appealed the findings, arguing the investigator and hearing officer were biased against him – and men more broadly – and that they had ignored his new evidence. An outside appeal officer denied his appeal in January, determining that the hearing officer’s decision was objective and reasonable, that he failed to submit the evidence in a timely manner and that it wouldn’t have affected the outcome.

Tucker and Belveal signaled their intent to sue Michigan State for wrongful termination in late September, when they sent university officials a litigation hold. Five months later, no lawsuit has been filed.

Source of alleged leak remains a mystery

Tracy and her attorney previously suggested that then-MSU board chair Rema Vassar shared her name and details of her case against Tucker during the investigation with individuals outside the school. The university hired another outside law firm to investigate those allegations.

That firm, Jones Day, did not find evidence that Vassar or another MSU official leaked her name to the media, saying it found evidence tending to refute such allegations. It suggested Tracy may have fueled the rumors herself by sharing information with the press. The firm also accused trustee Dennis Denno of withholding relevant information. Denno refused to be interviewed for the investigation or turn over his cell phone, while all other trustees complied, the report said.

Denno, who was elected in 2022, declined to comment to USA TODAY, referring instead to a written statement saying the investigation unfairly targeted the university’s board instead of its administration.

Vassar, who also declined to comment for this story, resigned as chair of MSU’s Board of Trustees on Sunday evening, hours before an unusual 10 p.m. board meeting. At the meeting, board members voted to suspend her and Denno from all board activity for the rest of its current term and referred them to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for potential removal.

The move came days after another outside law firm report substantiated several allegations by fellow trustee Brianna Scott that Vassar and Denno engaged in unethical conduct, including Vassar’s acceptance of a private jet flight to a Spartans basketball game in New York City in March 2023 from a donor with business before the board. Vassar and Denno said they refuted most of the report’s findings.

That report, by law firm Miller & Chevalier, criticized Vassar for sitting courtside with Tucker at the game, despite knowing he was under investigation for sexual harassment.

“While the Trustees may not have known the details of the allegations against Mr. Tucker,” the report says, “the fact of the allegations and of an ongoing investigation should have caused Chair Vassar to evaluate the propriety of her choice to both travel and sit with Mr. Tucker at the basketball game.”

Kenny Jacoby is an investigative reporter for USA TODAY covering sports and sexual misconduct. Contact him by email at kjacoby@usatoday.com or follow him on X @kennyjacoby.  

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mel Tucker, Michigan State to be sued by rape survivor Brenda Tracy





Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top