Watchdog: FBI mishandled Nassar-USA Gymnastics abuse case
WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI made “fundamental” errors in investigating sexual abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar and did not treat the case with the “utmost seriousness,” the Justice Department’s inspector general said Wednesday. More athletes said they were molested before the the FBI swung into action.
The FBI acknowledged conduct that was “inexcusable and a discredit” to America’s premier law enforcement agency and all.
The long-awaited watchdog report raises troubling questions about how the department and the FBI handled the case and it highlights major missteps at the FBI between the time the allegations were first reported and Nassar’s arrest.
The inspector general’s investigation was spurred by allegations that the FBI failed to promptly address complaints made in 2015 against Nassar. USA Gymnastics had conducted its own internal investigation and then the organization’s then-president, Stephen Penny, reported the allegations to the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis. But it took months before the bureau opened a formal investigation.
At least 40 girls and women said they were molested over a 14-month period while the FBI was aware of other sexual abuse allegations involving Nassar. Officials at USA Gymnastics also contacted FBI officials in Los Angeles in May 2016 after eight months of inactivity from agents in Indianapolis.
The inspector general’s office found that “despite the extraordinarily serious nature” of the claims against Nassar, FBI officials in Indianapolis did not respond with the “utmost seriousness and urgency that the allegations deserved and required.”
When they did respond, the report said, FBI officials made “numerous and fundamental errors” and also violated bureau policies. Among the missteps was a failure to conduct any investigative activity until more than a month after a meeting with USA Gymnastics. Agents interviewed by phone one of three athletes, but never spoke with two other gymnasts despite being told they were available to meet.
The watchdog investigation also found that when the FBI’s Indianapolis field office’s handling of the matter came under scrutiny, officials there did not take any responsibility for the missteps and gave incomplete and inaccurate information to internal FBI inquiries to make it look like they had been diligent in their investigation.
The FBI rebuked its own employees who failed to act in the case and said it “should not have happened.”
“The actions and inactions of certain FBI employees described in the Report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization,” the agency said in a statement.
“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,” the statement said. “We will take all necessary steps to ensure that the failures of the employees outlined in the Report do not happen again.”
The inspector general interviewed an FBI supervisory special agent last September who said the original allegations reported by Penny and USA Gymnastics were “very vague” and who questioned Penny’s credibility, describing him as “kind of a snake oil salesman kind of guy.”
That special agent also told investigators that the Indianapolis field office didn’t appear to have jurisdiction to investigate because the alleged crimes did not take place in Indiana. That agent and an FBI supervisor in the office said they told Penny to contact local law enforcement — a claim contradicted by Penny and the chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors.
The FBI said the supervisory special agent “violated multiple policies” and that the agency took immediate action when it learned that the agent did not properly document the sexual abuse complaints, had mishandled evidence and failed to report abuse.
The report also detailed that while the FBI was investigating the Nassar allegations, the head of the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis, W. Jay Abbott, was talking to Penny about getting a job with the Olympic Committee. He applied for the job but didn’t get it and later retired from the FBI, the report said.
Abbott also lied to investigators from the inspector general’s office multiple times in an effort “to minimize errors” made by his office in handling the case, the report found.
Nassar was ultimately charged in 2016 with federal child pornography offenses and sexual abuse charges in Michigan.
He is now serving decades in prison after hundreds of girls and women said he sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment when he worked for Michigan State and Indiana-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.
The inspector general’s office said it reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed more than 60 witnesses, including several victims, their parents, prosecutors and current and former FBI employees.
The FBI’s handling of the case was strongly condemned by members of Congress, and some senators called for the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland to testify about the case.
“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,” said Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
Nassar’s victims also strongly criticized the FBI for its poor handling of the investigation.
“The dozens of little girls abused after the FBI knew who Larry was and exactly what he was doing, could have and should have been saved,” tweeted Rachel Denhollander, one of the first women to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse.
John Manly, an attorney for over 150 of Nassar’s victims, said Abbott should be prosecuted and insisted that anyone responsible for missteps in the investigation should be held accountable.
“The OIG report released shocks the conscience,” Manly said. “These women and girls not only deserved to have their case thoroughly investigated but deserved the respect and full attention of those investigating their case.”
USA Gymnastics is still reeling from the fallout of the Nassar scandal six years after Penny first approached authorities. The sport’s national governing body has undergone a massive overhaul in leadership — current president Li Li Leung is the fourth person to hold the position since the 2016 Olympics — and safety protocols in hopes of providing better protection for athletes.
USA Gymnastics also remains in court as it continues mediation with dozens of Nassar survivors, though Leung hopes settlement can be reached by the end of the year.
“At the end of the day, what has happened is something that we are learning from and we’re using the past to inform how we go forward,” Leung told reporters last month.
The report came on the same day the 2021 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, a group that includes reigning world and Olympic champion and Nassar abuse survivor Simone Biles, flew to Tokyo for the Games.
Associated Press writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.