Last month, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) released a congressional report confirming that multiple institutions failed to take proper action to stop sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar. He is now serving a veritable life sentence in prison for assaulting more than 250 people — primarily young, female patients — under the guise of medical treatment.
The report finds the FBI failed to protect victims and enabled their abuse through institutional inaction.
It’s been clear since the Indianapolis Star first revealed allegations against Nassar in September 2016 that USA Gymnastics (USAG), the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), and Michigan State University (MSU) could have prevented some of the abuse if they had acted faster.
But this 235-page report — the result of an 18-month investigation by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade and Consumer Protection — provides the clearest portrait yet of how thoroughly the FBI enabled Nassar’s abuse.
The congressional report finds the FBI dragged its feet on the investigation itself while Nassar was still working at Michigan State, and still actively abusing patients. “Nassar remained employed by MSU for 420 days after the FBI received a report from USAG of credible allegations against Nassar on July 27, 2015,” the report states.
USAG also consulted the FBI about its media strategy and attempts to cover up the investigation into the allegations against Nassar, according to the report.
The report also highlights the close relationship between USAG officials and FBI agents. Emails included in the report show USAG officials were trying to help an FBI agent leading the investigation get a job at the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“The FBI failed to pursue a course of action that would have immediately protected victims in harm’s way,” says the report. “Instead, the FBI’s investigation dragged on and was shuffled between field offices while Nassar continued to see patients at MSU until August 20, 2016, a day after Rachael Denhollander filed a complaint against Nassar with MSU police.”
FBI dragged its feet on investigation
The FBI was first notified about Nassar in the summer of 2015. That June, gymnast Maggie Nichols told her coach, Sarah Jantzi, that she was uncomfortable with Nassar’s so-called treatments.
Jantzi reported her concerns to Rhonda Faehn, then the head of USAG’s women’s program, and Faehn passed these concerns on to Steve Penny, who was the president of USAG at the time.
Instead of going directly to law enforcement, on July 2, Penny hired human resources specialist, Fran Sepler, to investigate the allegations. Sepler spoke with Nichols, as well as Olympians Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney. Finally, on July 24, Sepler told Penny that he should report Nassar to law enforcement.
But Penny waited three days, only notifying the FBI in Indianapolis on July 27. The next day, Penny, then-vice chair of USAG Paul Parilla, and then-USAG legal counsel Scott Himsel, met with FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Jay Abbott and two other field agents at the FBI office in Indianapolis.
This is where things start looking really bad for the FBI.
Parilla told the senate committee that Abbott said “on several occasions” that USAG should not take actions that would “interfere with the FBI’s investigation.” But it seems like the FBI was not clear at all about what that might mean — Parilla did not recall any specific conversation where the FBI prohibited USAG from sharing information about the investigation with MSU, where Nassar was still employed and seeing patients.
USAG used those vague FBI instructions as an excuse not to contact MSU, and for the next year, neither USAG nor the FBI took steps to prevent Nassar from seeing patients outside of USAG. According to the New York Times, Nassar abused at least 40 patients during that time.
Over the next six weeks, USAG helped the FBI agents arrange interviews with girls who said Nassar abused them, and followed up a few times. On September 4, 2015, Abbott emailed Penny relaying his 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.”
But after that, the investigation appears to have stalled, and USAG did not hear anything else from the FBI. So the next spring, Penny and Parilla met with FBI agent Michael Hess in Los Angeles, California, where some of the survivors lived.
Hess began reaching out to survivors at that time, but it seemed to those survivors there was little to no communication between the FBI office in Indianapolis and the FBI office in Los Angeles.
McKayla Maroney told the subcommittee that “the FBI appeared to have an inaccurate and false record of what she had told the FBI during her call with them in August 2015 and her meeting with them in May 2016.”
Plus, the interviews lacked a sense of urgency; FBI agents worked around the Olympic schedule of gymnasts. Sarah Jantzi, Maggie Nichols’ former coach, was interviewed by Hess “sometime after Olympic trials,” which was likely late summer of 2016. Jantzi’s report to USAG was what got the entire investigation started; it seemed odd that it would take so long to interview her.
And still, it seems that nobody in the FBI office in Los Angeles was in contact with the FBI office in Lansing, Michigan, where Nassar was still working. Lieutenant Andrea Mumford of the MSU Police Department, the lead investigator in the Michigan case against Nassar, said her first interaction with the FBI happened on September 12, 2016, when Hess told her that the FBI was investigating Nassar for federal sex crimes involving interstate travel. This was after Denhollander had already filed her criminal complaint to the MSU police department.
Later that fall, when Mumford and other members of the local police force executed a search warrant and found computer devices containing child pornography, they handed that over to the FBI in Lansing. According to the report, Mumford told investigators that “at the time she did not think that the FBI in Lansing knew about Nassar.”
The congressional report also mentions that as of right now, the FBI has not yet contacted key figures at Michigan State who allegedly enabled Nassar’s abuse, including former MSU gymnastics head coach Kathy Klages and former MSU doctor Brooke Lemmon.
FBI helped USAG with its media strategy
Not only was the FBI dragging its feet on the investigation, but it was also helping USAG keep a lid on Nassar’s crimes, according to congressional investigators.
On July 30, 2015, two days after reporting Nassar to the FBI for sexual abuse, Penny emailed agent Abbott seeking assistance with USAG’s communication with Nassar. In that email, Penny wrote, “Our biggest concern is how we contain him from sending shockwaves through the community.”
Penny wanted to ensure that any correspondence with Nassar was “consistent with FBI protocol.” Abbott responded, “You are certainly able to advise Dr. Nasser [sic] as you deem appropriate and we in no way want to hinder that or lead you to believe you must follow an ‘FBI Protocol’ though the FBI will not confirm or deny any ongoing investigation OR assessment.”
After USAG reported additional concerns to the FBI in Los Angeles in the spring of 2016, Penny emailed Hess requesting that the FBI not share that it was USAG that made the report against Nassar.
He wrote, “If there is any way you can not [sic] identify that USA gymnastics has filed the complaint against Nassar when you talk to people, but just generally suggest that ‘a complaint has been filed’, I would greatly appreciate it. It will keep things on a much more level playing field if no one can point in any one direction.” It is unclear how the FBI responded to this request.
On September 7, 2016, after being sent a round of questions from the Indianapolis Star, Penny forwarded the questions to the FBI and expressed his desire to “body-slam” the reporters investigating Nassar.
USAG president tried to get FBI agent job at USOC
The subcommittee released emails confirming a personal relationship between Penny and Abbott, which had previously been reported by the New York Times.
On October 20, 2015 — just over a month after Abbott had finished his interviews for the Nassar investigation — Abbott emailed Penny to tell him, “Also, just another quick ‘thank you’ for the beer and conversation a few weeks ago. I very much appreciate what you did. Though I realize there would be many qualified applicants, the position with the USOC is truly a tantalizing and interesting possible opportunity post-Bureau that I continue to think about.”
According to the congressional report, a year and a half after this exchange, Penny sent Abbott a text message on February 17, 2017, containing a link to a website advertising a position with USOC.
Around the same time Penny and Abbott were sharing beers and talking about job opportunities, Nassar was abusing dozens more patients from his office, right on the MSU campus.
There are a lot of people who still need to be brought to justice for their enabling of Nassar. The FBI is no exception.
The Department of Justice opened up an investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Nassar case last September.