In the News
Wall Street Journal: FBI Agents Disregarded Gymnasts’ Complaints About Nassar, Then Made False Statements to Cover Mistakes, Report Says
Jul 14 2021
Wall Street Journal | Louise Radnofsky and Rebecca David O'Brien
WASHINGTON—FBI agents disregarded allegations by Olympic gymnasts that they were sexually assaulted by former national team doctor Larry Nassar and later made false statements to cover their mistakes, Justice Department investigators said Wednesday in a long-awaited report on the bureau’s handling of one of the biggest abuse cases in U.S. sports history.
The Justice Department’s inspector general detailed multiple failings in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s response to the gymnasts’ complaints, which were first brought into the Indianapolis field office on July 28, 2015, by USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body. For more than a year after that, the bureau did almost nothing in response.
The Indianapolis agents receive the brunt of the blame: according to the report, agents there were unsure if the allegations against Nassar represented a possible federal crime. They were also unsure how to handle concerns that had been brought to them in Indianapolis—the city where USA Gymnastics is headquartered—when there were no allegations of Nassar treating gymnasts there.
Nassar, now serving an effective life term in prison, was later established to have sexually abused hundreds of women and girls—including members of the U.S. national gymnastics team—under the guise of medical treatment. The abuse occurred in training and competitions around the country and overseas, and through his employment at Michigan State University.
According to the report, the Indianapolis agents did not formally document their July 2015 meeting with the USA Gymnastics officials, which came after the gymnastics body had conducted its own five-week internal inquiry into concerns about Nassar.
After the meeting, Indianapolis agents spoke with only one gymnast: McKayla Maroney, who had described her abuse to a private investigator retained by USA Gymnastics. An agent conducted that interview over the telephone. The report says that the interview was not properly documented until February 2017, which is around the time The Wall Street Journal first documented the delays in the investigation. Agents did not follow up with other gymnasts.
And, the report says, the Indianapolis agents failed to transfer the Nassar allegations to the FBI’s resident agency in Lansing, Mich.—under the Detroit field office—the most likely place to investigate potential federal crimes that had been committed in the area, even after they had been advised by an Assistant U.S. Attorney to do so and they told USA Gymnastics that they had.
Nor did the FBI contact state or local enforcement or take any other action to mitigate the risk to gymnasts that Nassar continued to treat.
The report also details multiple false statements to internal FBI investigators by Indianapolis agents, including the special agent in charge of the office, Jay Abbott, and a supervisory special agent who is not named, dating to the earliest days of the gymnasts’ complaints. The supervisory special agent’s February 2017 write-up of his telephone interview with Maroney contained materially false statements and omissions, and the agent also made materially false statements when questioned later about the interview.
Abbott, too, “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,” according to the inspector general’s report.
He also showed “extremely poor judgment and violated FBI policy” by communicating with Steve Penny, the then-head of USA Gymnastics, about a potential vacancy at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee while the two continued to discuss the Nassar allegations. Abbott then applied for the job, and later twice told internal investigators he had not.
A lawyer for Penny, Edith Matthai, previously characterized Penny’s part in those interactions as “normal, common, ordinary networking, not a conspiracy.”
The FBI said in a response included in the report: “We accept in full the OIG’s recommendation and take especially seriously the findings that certain FBI employees did not respond to allegations of sexual abuse adequately and with the utmost urgency in 2015 and 2016.” The FBI also said the supervisory special agent is no longer a supervisor, and that after learning of the inspector general’s findings, “the FBI took immediate action to ensure the individual is not working on FBI matters.”
Abbott, who is now retired, could not immediately be reached for comment. The FBI said in its response that his behavior was not representative of tens of thousands of FBI retirees and current employees.
As the case languished with the FBI in 2015 and into 2016, Nassar was allowed to quietly retire from USA Gymnastics, and top officials at USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee said nothing to Nassar’s employer, Michigan State University, where he continued to see patients for a year. All of those institutions continue to face scrutiny for their handling of the Nassar case.
Release of the report comes as the current U.S. women’s gymnastics team is traveling to Japan for the delayed Tokyo Games, which begin next week. The 2021 U.S. team includes Biles, who has identified herself as a victim of Nassar and spoken repeatedly of her struggle to understand the way USA Gymnastics and the FBI handled gymnasts’ concerns.
The Inspector General’s investigation grew out of an internal FBI review, which began in early 2018 amid growing national outrage over Nassar’s abuse. Nassar was arrested in November 2016 on state sexual-abuse charges in Michigan, followed by federal child-pornography charges the next month. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 2017.
Separate from the inspector general’s investigation, prosecutors in the Justice Department’s public-integrity unit were also investigating the FBI’s handling of the Nassar allegations, including the bureau’s dealings with Penny, with an eye toward possible criminal charges. The status of that investigation couldn’t immediately be determined.
Key senators including Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, were personally briefed by Inspector General Michael Horowitz on the report Wednesday afternoon, senior aides said.
“This report is absolutely chilling, truly a gut punch to anyone who cares about effective law enforcement,” said Blumenthal, after the release of the report. Blumenthal also said that he wanted to see more congressional hearings on the case and he wondered why there were no criminal charges brought against the Indianapolis agents for making false statements. “There has to be a measure of accountability.”
Moran said that in the near four years of waiting for the report, he had developed the sense that something was “significantly wrong” in the Indianapolis office. “This a sad day to once again learn that a system designed to protect individuals failed,” Moran said. “Someone who lies in an official capacity ought to pay the consequence for doing so.”
In early 2016, USA Gymnastics officials again brought the matter to the FBI, in Los Angeles. Later that year, the FBI finally followed up for an in-person interview with Maroney. It was the Los Angeles field office that ultimately interviewed additional athletes.
By then, other key gymnasts—some of whom had also tried to independently chase the matter with the FBI over the year—were amid intense preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. It was only after the Games that those gymnasts were interviewed, around the same time that allegations against Nassar were made publicly.