In the News

The Washington Post
Will Hobson

A month after the emotional statements of 156 accusers at the sentencing hearing for former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar re-ignited outrage on Capitol Hill, three congressional inquiries are underway focused on how Nassar escaped detection for so long, with a fourth potentially starting next year.

This week, the first responses from the institutions through which Nassar accessed victims — Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee — were made public. They offer the most complete picture to date of how these organizations probably will defend themselves, in lawsuits and ongoing congressional inquiries, against claims they ignored or enabled Nassar’s abuse.

The three letters, which Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) of the Senate Commerce Committee released late Monday, portray Nassar as a particularly insidious child molester.

For decades, Nassar masked his abuse as legitimate pain therapy that gave him a reason to be touching patients near their genitals. He finally was brought down in 2016, when a victim told her story to a newspaper, resulting in dozens of girls and women across the country, many of them realizing for the first time what they had thought was medical treatment was actually sexual assault, contacting law enforcement. 

Here’s what these institutions said to inquiries from Sens. Moran and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about what they knew about Nassar, and when:

Michigan State: The university defended itself against claims it ignored complaints as far back as 1997 by stating that, before 2016, allegations of complaints ignored were made to people who have said they don’t remember them or don’t remember them being made as precisely as some victims claim.

Six women have said they complained about Nassar to Michigan State officials between 1997 and 2004; those officials were a gymnastics coach, a track coach, three trainers and a professor. Former Michigan State gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, accused by two women of ignoring their complaints in 1997, has denied these allegations through her attorney. The professor — Gary Stollak, a psychologist who heard a girl allege sex abuse as part of his private practice — has testified he had a stroke and doesn’t recall the incident.

As for the other coaches and trainers, Michigan State wrote: “past and present MSU employees have said that they do not remember the alleged reports to them (some of which would have taken place as many as 20 years ago) as they have been described.”

In 2014, a former Michigan State student’s complaint that Nassar had touched her in a sexual manner on her buttocks, on her breasts and near her vagina prompted investigations by both the university’s Title IX office and Michigan State police. In its response to the Senate Commerce Committee, Michigan State emphasized that this woman did not allege penetration, as many other victims later would. Michigan State’s Title IX office cleared Nassar, concluding the woman misinterpreted treatment. Police turned their findings over to the local prosecutor’s office, which declined to press charges.

In July 2015, in perhaps an indication of his brazenness, Nassar openly discussed with a colleague that USA Gymnastics was investigating him over concerns expressed by gymnasts over his techniques. The colleague, whom the university has identified in other documents as former physician Brooke Lemmen, did not tell anyone else at Michigan State. Lemmen’s attorney has explained she did not inform others because she was not aware Nassar was under investigation for any crimes, just that the Olympic organization was reviewing the type of treatment he provided.

In August 2016, another woman filed a complaint with Michigan State police alleging Nassar digitally penetrated her years prior during a medical exam. The woman, Rachael Denhollander, then contacted the Indianapolis Star, and a subsequent story resulted in dozens more girls and woman contacting law enforcement. 

“To date, there has been no indication that any MSU employee understood at any time prior to September 2016 that Nassar engaged in sexual misconduct. As noted earlier, MSU continues to investigate and may learn more as part of the litigation discovery process,” the university wrote.

USA Gymnastics: In her letter, USA Gymnastics chief executive Kerry Perry included a timeline that the organization — in varying levels of detail — has filled in since Nassar’s arrest in November 2016.

In June 2015, a coach contacted a top official at USA Gymnastics headquarters in Indianapolis “regarding her athlete being uncomfortable with treatment she had received,” Perry wrote. Over the next five weeks, USA Gymnastics conducted an internal investigation, identified two other athletes who expressed concern about Nassar’s treatment and decided to contact the FBI.

On July 28, 2015, former chief executive Steve Penny and two other USA Gymnastics officials met with agents in the FBI’s Indianapolis office.

“USA Gymnastics was assured by the FBI that it was the appropriate agency to contact and that USA Gymnastics had handled the matter correctly,” Perry wrote. Agents also asked USA Gymnastics “not to take any steps that would interfere with their investigation,” a directive the organization has cited as to why it did not inform officials at Michigan State.

Initially, USA Gymnastics offered to assist the FBI in contacting more athletes, but in late August or September 2015, Perry wrote, agents in Indianapolis said the investigation had been transferred to the FBI’s Detroit office. In April 2016, “concern arose to the perceived lack of progress,” Perry wrote, and USA Gymnastics contacted the Los Angeles office of the FBI, reporting the exact same information it had given agents in Indianapolis the year before.

The FBI has never publicly explained the pace of its investigation into Nassar.

USOC: In its letter, a lawyer for the USOC wrote that the organization is not aware of any complaints about Nassar to USOC officials before a July 2015 conversation between Penny, the former USA Gymnastics CEO, and Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the USOC. In this discussion, Penny informed Blackmun that three athletes had made complaints about Nassar and that he intended to inform law enforcement.

“Mr. Blackmun agreed that the matter needed to be reported immediately to law enforcement,” wrote Brian D. Smith, an attorney with Covington law firm.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) have called for Blackmun to resign for “inaction,” an apparent reference to Blackmun not following up with Penny to ensure he contacted Michigan State. The senators are also seeking to launch a select Senate committee inquiry into the Nassar case some time in 2019.

In addition to the congressional inquiries, the USOC has launched its own investigation into Nassar’s abuse, which is being conducted by two federal prosecutors who work for Ropes & Gray law firm, Smith wrote. At its conclusion, the USOC plans to make the Ropes & Gray report public. 

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