DOJ investigation blasts FBI for mishandling Larry Nassar case

Officials in the FBI’s Indianapolis office failed to respond to allegations by American Olympic champions and national team members that they had been sexually abused by former U.S. Olympic and USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar “with the urgency that the allegations required,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report released Wednesday.

The OIG, after a nearly three-year investigation, also concluded that W. Jay Abbott, the Indianapolis special agent in charge, and an Indianapolis Field Office Supervisory Special Agent (Indianapolis SSA) made false statements. A 30-year FBI veteran, Abbott retired from the bureau in January 2018.

Specifically, Abbott lied to OIG investigators about applying for a top level security position with the U.S. Olympic Committee while consulting with USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny about the Nassar case. The report also found that FBI agents lied to investigators to cover up errors made in the bureau’s investigation of Nassar.

“It’s clear that there were catastrophic failures at multiple levels of law enforcement, including federal agents who should’ve taken action and willfully neglected to do so. This dereliction of duty is reprehensible, and those responsible must be held accountable,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

The report, however, did not come with indictments, enraging Nassar’s victims and their supporters.

“It’s a damning indictment of the FBI,” John Manly, an attorney for more than 100 Nassar survivors, said referring to the report. “It says that (Abbott and the other agent) lied, they lied to the FBI. They lied to everyone. And they enabled Nassar to molest hundreds of young girls.

“And then you get to the end and everybody gets a pass. Nobody is going to be held accountable. If an ordinary American lied to the FBI they would go to federal prison. But if you lie and you’re an FBI agent you get special treatment. Because clearly the Justice Department is not holding anybody to account.”

Abbott was in frequent contact with Penny in the weeks after the Indianapolis-based national governing learned of allegations against Nassar. They regularly discussed Abbott being hired by the USOC, now known as the USOPC.

“Specifically, we concluded that the gymnast interview summary that the Indianapolis SSA drafted in February 2017, 17 months after the interview took place, contained materially false statements and omitted material information,” the report said  “We further concluded that the Indianapolis SSA made materially false statements when twice questioned by the OIG about the victim interview. In addition, we concluded that Abbott made materially false statements during his OIG interviews to minimize errors made by the Indianapolis Field Office in connection with the handling of the Nassar allegations.”

The OIG said “Abbott violated FBI policy and exercised extremely poor judgment under federal ethics rules when he, without prior authorization, communicated with Penny about a potential job opportunity with the U.S. Olympic Committee, an entity with which Penny had professional connections.  Abbott communicated with Penny about the potential job opportunity while the two continued to discuss the allegations against Nassar and while Abbott took an active role in conversations about the FBI’s public statements regarding USA Gymnastics’ handling of those allegations.  Abbott should have known — and we found that he in fact did know — that this conduct would raise questions regarding his impartiality.  Further, Abbott applied for the position with the U.S. Olympic Committee, and then falsely denied that he had done so when questioned by the OIG on two separate occasions.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan) in a joint statement called on Attorney General Marrick Garland, FBI director Christopher Wray and DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz to testify in front of the Senate “to discuss this report’s findings and explain what steps are being taken to ensure that this never happens again.”

“We are appalled by the FBI’s gross mishandling of the specific warnings its agents received about Larry Nassar’s horrific abuse years before he was finally arrested,” Blumenthal and Moran said.”How many athletes would have been spared unimaginable pain if the FBI had done its job? The Department of Justice now needs to decide if it is going to be yet another institution that fails survivors or if it is going to enforce some measure of accountability for these crimes.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate judiciary committee, went even further.

“It’s now up to Director Wray to hold bad actors accountable,” Grassley said.

In a statement Wednesday the FBI vowed to “take all necessary steps to ensure that the failures of the employees outlined in the report do not happen again.”

“As the Inspector General made clear in today’s report, this should not have happened,” the FBI statement said. “The FBI will never lose sight of the harm that Nassar’s abuse caused. The actions and inactions of certain FBI employees described in the report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization. The FBI has taken affirmative steps to ensure and has confirmed that those responsible for the misconduct and breach of trust no longer work FBI matters.”

Penny and other top USA Gymnastics officials were informed in June 2015 of allegations that gymnast Maggie Nichols had been sexually assaulted by Nassar under the guise of treatment at a U.S. national team camp at the Karolyi Ranch in remote Central Texas. Within days Penny and other officials also learned of allegations that Olympic champions Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney had also been sexually abused by Nassar. Around this time Penny began communicating with Abbott through a series of conversations and emails, often seeking the FBI agent’s advice on handling the case.

Nassar, according to court documents, sexually abused at least 40 young athletes between USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny’s first contact with the FBI agent in charge of the bureau’s Indianapolis office in July 2015 and September 2016, when Nassar’s abuse became public. The number of victims in that window could actually surpass 100, according to persons familiar with dozens of Nassar-related lawsuits.

The OIG report found that “After eight months of inaction by the FBI Indianapolis Field Office, the FBI Los Angeles Field Office received the same allegations. The OIG found that while the Los Angeles Field Office took numerous investigative steps, it too failed to notify the FBI Lansing Resident Agency, or state or local authorities, of the allegations, and failed to take other steps to mitigate the ongoing threat posed by Nassar.”

“The FBI Lansing Resident Agency did not become aware of the Nassar allegations until after the Michigan State University Police Department (MSUPD) executed a search warrant on Nassar’s residence in September 2016, following the MSUPD’s receipt of separate complaints of sexual abuse by Nassar, and discovered child pornography at Nassar’s residence.”

The OIG also said “when the FBI’s handling of the Nassar matter came under scrutiny from the public, Congress, the media, and FBI headquarters in 2017 and 2018, Indianapolis Field Office officials did not take responsibility for their failures.  Instead, they provided incomplete and inaccurate information to make it appear that they had been diligent in responding to the sexual abuse allegations.”

The specific findings of the report include:

“Officials in the Indianapolis Field Office violated numerous FBI policies in handling the Nassar allegations.  Specifically, officials in the Indianapolis Field Office:

  • failed to formally document a July 28, 2015 meeting with USA Gymnastics during which the FBI first received the allegations against Nassar;
  • failed to properly handle and document receipt and review of relevant evidence, i.e., a thumb drive provided by USA Gymnastics President Stephen D. Penny, Jr.;
  • failed to document until February 2017 an interview of a gymnast that was conducted on September 2, 2015, during which the gymnast alleged sexual assault by Nassar; and
  • failed to transfer the Nassar allegations to the FBI Lansing Resident Agency, where the venue most likely would have existed for potential federal crimes.

Between August and October 2018, Office of the Inspector General investigators and FBI agents from local field offices interviewed Olympic champions Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Jordyn Wieber, and Maggie Nichols, a 2015 World champion, and their parents about the FBI’s investigation of Nassar, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Southern California News Group.

But the Justice Department did not release the OIG report on the FBI’s role in the Nassar scandal more than two years after the OIG official leading the investigation told parties in the case that the investigators’ report had been forwarded to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. Two federal prosecutors in the PIS also confirmed they had received the report nearly three years ago, an attorney involved in the case said.

Outraged gymnasts and parents in public statements and interviews with the SCNG and Congressional investigators have long accused the FBI of enabling Nassar’s continued abuse of young female athletes by the plodding pace of an investigation that lacked the sense of urgency the gravity of the charges required or by potentially aiding Penny in USA Gymnastics’ alleged cover-up. Parents said they repeatedly offered FBI agents emails, texts and other materials that pointed to an alleged cover-up by USA Gymnastics only to be informed by agents that their only focus was Nassar.

Nassar, according to court documents, sexually abused at least 40 young athletes between USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny’s first contact with the FBI agent in charge of the bureau’s Indianapolis office in July 2015 and September 2016, when Nassar’s abuse became public. The number of victims in that window could actually surpass 100, according to persons familiar with dozens of Nassar-related lawsuits.

“It was crystal-clear that what happened to these young women should have never happened,” said .Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “Yet, the FBI’s failures in investigating Nassar allowed at least 40 more young women to be assaulted by him.”

Penny was in regular contact with Abbott from July 27, 2015, when the national governing body first contacted the FBI with allegations that Nassar had sexually assaulted Team USA gymnasts under the guise of performing medical treatment. USA Gymnastics, a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, is based in Indianapolis.

Penny not only kept Abbott and other FBI officials updated on the availability of potential victims to be interviewed by the FBI, and developments with Nassar,  but also asked Abbott and other agents for advice and help in managing Nassar and the media, and in some cases for favors in how the FBI presented and handled the case, according to emails. The favors included Penny asking agents to withhold information from potential victims, according to emails.

“Over the next 6 weeks, the Indianapolis Field Office conducted limited follow-up, which involved conducting a telephonic interview on September 2 of one of the three athletes, reviewing the thumb drive provided by Penny, and discussing the allegations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) in the Southern District of Indiana and the FBI’s Detroit Field Office,” the report said. “The Indianapolis office did not formally document any of its investigative activity, including its July meeting with USA Gymnastics and its September 2 telephonic interview of one of the victim gymnasts. The office also did not formally open an investigation or assessment of the matter. The only 2015 Indianapolis Field Office documentation located by the OIG consisted of five pages of handwritten notes taken by two of the FBI attendees at the July 2015 meeting with USA Gymnastics, three pages of notes taken by the two agents at the September 2 interview of the one athlete, a handful of email exchanges between Penny and the FBI Indianapolis Field Office, and approximately 45 emails and text messages among agents and prosecutors.”

The OIG also found the FBI’s Los Angeles office at fault.

“While the FBI Los Angeles Field Office appreciated the utmost seriousness of theNassar allegations and took numerous investigative steps upon learning of them in May 2016, the office did not expeditiously notify local law enforcement or the FBI Lansing Resident Agency of the information that it had learned or take other action to mitigate the ongoing danger that Nassar posed,” the report said. “Indeed, precisely because of its investigative activity, the Los AngelesField Office was aware from interviewing multiple witnesses that Nassar’s abuse was potentiallywidespread and that there were specific allegations of sexual assault against him for his actions while at the Karolyi Training Camp (also known as the Karolyi Ranch) in Huntsville, Texas.

“Yet, the Los Angeles Field Office did not contact the Sheriff’s Office in Walker County, Texas, to provide it with the information that it had developed until after the MSUPD had taken action against Nassar in September 2016. Nor did it have any contact with the FBI Lansing Resident Agency until after the Lansing Resident Agency first learned about the Nassar allegations from the MSUPD and public news reporting. Given the continuing threat posed by Nassar, the uncertainty over whether the Los Angeles Field Office had venue over the allegations, and the doubt that there was even federal jurisdiction to charge the sexual tourism crime that the Los Angeles Field Office was seeking to pursue, we found that prudence and sound judgment dictated that the Los Angeles Field Office should have notified local authorities upon developing the serious evidence of sexual assaultagainst Nassar that its investigative actions were uncovering.”

During the FBI’s initial steps in investigating Nassar, Penny and Abbott also discussed on multiple occasions the possibility of Abbott becoming the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of security after his retirement from the bureau, an idea first floated by Penny, according to emails. Penny recommended Abbott to USOC officials during this same time period.

When the Nassar scandal broke in September 2016, according to the report, Abbott wrote Penny in an email “Hang in there. You’ll be all right.”

“Those emails are about as outrageous as anything I can imagine,” Manly said of the emails in which Penny and Abbott discussed the USOC post. “Would (Abbott) feel comfortable telling the victims he’s negotiating for that job while he’s conducting the investigation? Of course not.”.

The gymnasts and their families have been concerned that by not releasing the OIG report or delaying its release, the Justice Department is jeopardizing potential criminal and civil cases against FBI agents.

While Penny and Abbott continued to meet and discuss the USOC position in October 2015, FBI agents were still months away from interviewing Nichols and Raisman, the first two known victims of Nassar at the time, or following up on allegations made by Maroney in a Sept. 2015 telephone interview with the agents that she was sexually assaulted by Nassar at the 2011 World Championships in Japan and the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“During the course of the OIG investigation, we learned that in the fall of 2015, after the Indianapolis Field Office decided to refer the Nassar allegations to the FBI’s Lansing Resident Agency but while the matter was still pending at the FBI, Abbott met with Penny at a bar and discussed a potential job opportunity with the U.S.Olympic Committee,” the report said. “Thereafter, Abbott engaged with Penny about both his interest in the U.S. Olympic Committee position and the Nassar investigation, while at the same time participating in discussions at the FBI related to the Nassar investigation. These discussions included Penny expressing concern to Abbott about how USA Gymnastics was being portrayed in the media and whether Penny might be ‘in trouble’ and Abbott proposing to his colleagues an FBI public statement that would place USA Gymnastics in a positive light. At the same time, Abbott was aware that Penny appeared willing to put in a good word on Abbott’s behalf. Abbott applied for the U.S. Olympic Committee position in 2017 but was not selected. Despite evidence confirming that Abbott had applied for the job, Abbott denied to the OIG during two interviews that he had applied for the position and told the OIG that applying for the job would have presented a conflict of interest.”

During the summer of 2017, despite the victims agreeing to testify against Nassar at trial, the FBI and U.S. Attorney pushed the women to approve the plea deal where the physician would only face child pornography charges. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office in meeting with the gymnasts told them other victims were unwilling to testify against Nassar, according to three people familiar with the discussions. Manly was also outraged that his clients had been contacted by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office without consulting him.

The OIG released more than 170 reports, investigative summaries, audits, and memorandums between August 2018 when investigators first interviewed Maroney and November 2020.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee investigation into the Nassar case found that the “FBI had opportunities to stop Nassar but failed to do so.”

“The FBI failed to pursue a course of action that would have immediately protected victims in harm’s way,” said a subcommittee report released in July 2019.

The OIG report concluded “that the Indianapolis SSA, in an effort to minimize or excuse his errors, made false statements during two OIG-compelled interviews regarding his interview of one of Nassar’s victims. Similarly, we found that Abbott, in an effort to minimize or excuse his own and his office’s actions, falsely asserted in two separate OIG interviews that he communicated with both the Detroit SAC and the Los Angeles SAC about the Nassar allegations and sent ECs to both field offices in the fall of 2015. We found no evidence to support these claims.”

Parents of the victims continued to inquire about the FBI investigation through the summer of 2015, and along with Penny tried to schedule victim interviews with the bureau. FBI Agent Gregory Massa wrote Penny in an August 12, 2015 follow-up email about scheduling a Maroney interview “We’ve made it a priority and will ensure the interview gets scheduled and conducted.”

But Lynn Raisman, Aly’s mother, said Michael Langeman, an FBI agent briefed extensively on the Nassar case, told her “we determined with USA Gymnastics that we didn’t have jurisdiction.”

Maroney was eventually interviewed by the FBI over the phone around Sept. 2. During the interview, she described “explicit criminal conduct” by Nassar.

“As we discussed by phone, it is my understanding that pertinent interviews have been completed and the results have been provided to the FBI and the USAO in Michigan (Detroit) for appropriate action if any,” Abbott wrote in a September 4, 2015 email to Penny.

But the OIG found that “In September 2015, following the September 2 interview of (Maroney), the Indianapolis Field Office, as well as the USAO for the Southern District of Indiana, concluded that there was no venue in Indianapolis since Indianapolis had no connection to any of the alleged illegal activity. Further, both offices had serious questions as to whether the allegations against Nassar were sufficient to support federal jurisdiction.

“Yet, the Indianapolis Field Office did not advise state or local authorities about the allegations and did not take any action to mitigate the risk to gymnasts that Nassar continued to treat. Instead, the Indianapolis agents and Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) determined that, if the FBI had jurisdiction, venue would likely be most appropriate in the Western District of Michigan and the FBI’s Lansing Resident Agency, where MSU is located and where Nassar treated patients. Accordingly, the AUSA advised the Indianapolis Field Office on September 2 to transfer the case to the FBI’s Lansing Resident Agency. However, the Indianapolis Field Office failed to do so, despite informing USA Gymnastics on September 4 that it had transferred the matter to the FBI’s Detroit Field Office (of which the FBI’s Lansing Resident Agency is a part).”

The FBI would not interview other victims or other key witnesses until the spring and summer of 2016. Gina Nichols, Maggie’s mother, was not interviewed by the FBI until the spring of 2016. Maggie Nichols was interviewed in July 2016, more than a year after Jantzi contacted Faehn. Like Lynn Raisman, Gina Nichols said she encouraged Hess and the FBI on multiple occasions to investigate USA Gymnastics and the USOC’s handling of the Nassar case.

Hess, Nichols recalled, “just kept repeatedly saying my only job is to get Larry Nassar.”

“The FBI never did a thing to help any of us,” Nichols said.

Maroney told senate investigators she could not recall any further communication with the FBI between her September 2015 interview and when she was interviewed by Hess in September 2016, this time in person in Southern California.

“According to Maroney’s recollection, during the 2016 interview, the FBI did not acknowledge the 2015 interview or explain why they had not yet acted on the information provided in the 2015 interview,” according to the Senate report.

After repeated inquiries by Lynn Raisman, the FBI also interviewed Aly Raisman in September 2016. “I asked why it took so long and Michael Hess said they were waiting until after the Olympics,” Lynn Raisman said.

For several months, Lynn Raisman said, Penny repeatedly told her “he was coordinating interviews for the FBI.” Emails also show Penny was heavily involved in the FBI scheduling interviews with potential victims and witnesses.

In September 2016, Penny told her “good news, I’m coordinating interviews for the FBI.” For more than a year, the Raismans had requested an FBI interview in Boston. Now Hess was telling them the interview would take place at the Olympic Training Center where Raisman and other Olympic team members were scheduled to train for a post-Olympic exhibition tour.

“For months we had asked them, ‘Please come to Boston, we’ll make sure it works out,’” Lynn Raisman said. “Now they want to do it at the training center. I remember Aly saying ‘This is really scary.’ There were all these  USAG and USOC people around there. They didn’t want to do it in Boston and now they want to do it right under the noses of USAG and the USOC. That’s not a good spot.”

Hess, however, insisted the interview proceed in Colorado Springs, Raisman said.

Abbott has not responded to repeated requests for comment. Penny denies any wrongdoing.

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