July 14, 2021
By Devlin Barrett
The FBI failed to properly investigate serious sex-abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, according to the Justice Department’s inspector general, who also determined that FBI officials gave misleading or false answers when confronted about those failures.
The scathing report released Wednesday paints a disturbing portrait of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency being told details of what would become one of the most shocking cases of serial sex abuse in recent American history, yet failing to follow up with key witnesses or even notify other law enforcement agencies of potential crimes happening in their jurisdictions.
The report noted that according to civil court filings, about 70 women and girls were victimized by Nassar between the time when the FBI was first told of the allegations, and when Michigan officials arrested him on the basis of separate information.
Despite “the extraordinarily serious nature of the allegations and the possibility that Nassar’s conduct could be continuing, senior officials in the FBI Indianapolis Field Office failed to respond to the Nassar allegations with the utmost seriousness and urgency that they deserved and required, made numerous and fundamental errors when they did respond to them, and violated multiple FBI policies,” concludes the report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
When confronted with their shortcomings, Horowitz found, FBI officials in Indianapolis sought to blame others.
FBI officials said they accepted the report’s findings and were making changes to bureau policies to improve their handling of reports of abuse involving children. “The actions and inactions of the FBI employees described in the Report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization and the values we hold dear,” Assistant Director Douglas Leff said in a written response to the report.
“At the FBI, we consider our mission to protect and serve the American people to be the highest responsibility. The conduct and facts in the Report are appalling, and we appreciate your continued efforts to examine it and recommend further improvements and safeguards.”
Separately, the bureau issued a statement saying that “this should not have happened. The FBI will never lose sight of the harm that Nassar’s abuse caused.” The agency promised to “take all necessary steps to ensure that the failures of the employees outlined in the Report do not happen again.”
The inspector general found that while the FBI was dealing with the Nassar allegations in late 2015, the head of the FBI’s Indianapolis office, Jay Abbott, talked to Stephen Penny, then-president of USA Gymnastics, about getting Abbott a job with the Olympic Committee.
The inspector general said Abbott applied for the job but did not get it, and when confronted about it later, falsely claimed to have not applied for the job. Penny resigned under pressure from his job with USA Gymnastics in 2017, and was charged in 2018 with evidence-tampering in the sex-abuse case.
Nassar has been accused by more than 330 girls and women — including Olympians Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles — of sexual abuse, often committed under the guise of medical treatment.
The internal review of the FBI’s handling of the initial allegations against Nassar was launched in 2018, after Nassar — who also was a doctor at Michigan State University — was sentenced to decades in prison on state charges.
He is serving what is effectively a life sentence that includes a 60-year term for federal child pornography crimes and a sentence of 40 to 175 years for assaulting nine girls and women in Michigan.
After receiving the first set of allegations about Nassar from USA Gymnastics, FBI officials in Indianapolis decided to refer them to a satellite office in Lansing, Mich. But the internal investigation found no document showing that that referral actually occurred.
FBI officials did not contact local law enforcement officials in Michigan to alert them to possible violations of state law being committed by Nassar, the report concluded.
A year later, in 2016, USA Gymnastics officials brought the same allegations against Nassar to the FBI office in Los Angeles, and again the case went nowhere. The inspector general found that although FBI agents in Los Angeles pursued the issue more aggressively, they were unsure whether Nassar had broken any federal laws.
“Like the Indianapolis Field Office, the Los Angeles Field Office did not reach out to any state or local authorities, even though it was aware of allegations that Nassar may have violated state laws,” the report found.
The report was harshest in its assessment of Abbott, the former special agent in charge in Indianapolis, finding that he “made false statements to the OIG about the job discussion, his application for the position, and his handling of the Nassar allegations.”
Abbott, who retired in 2018, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The supervisory special agent working under Abbott who handled the original allegations also was sharply criticized: “[I]n an effort to minimize or excuse his errors, [he] made false statements” during interviews with the inspector general, the report said.
The Justice Department declined to prosecute either Abbott or the supervisory special agent, who is still at the FBI but has been demoted, and officials said he no longer works on FBI matters. That administrative step often comes before an agent is fired. He was not named in the report.
John Manly, a lawyer whose firm represents roughly 250 survivors of Nassar’s abuse, called the report “a devastating indictment of the FBI” that “demonstrates unequivocally that there was an effort to squash this investigation before it ever got started. . . . It shows an unbelievable callousness and indifference to these children that they knew he was still seeing.”
Manly said the report also shows FBI agents lied repeatedly.
“If an ordinary American lies to the FBI, they haul them out of their house at gunpoint, and yet these agents get a pass, they even get their pension,” he said. “The message today is that it doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic gold medalist or a little girl on the street being trafficked, you don’t matter. And if an FBI agent wants to fabricate evidence and lie about it, they’re not going to do a damn thing about it.”
Lawmakers also roundly condemned the FBI’s handling of the case. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) issued a joint statement saying they were “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.”
The lawmakers pointedly asked: How many athletes “would have been spared unimaginable pain if the FBI had done its job?”
“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,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “This dereliction of duty is reprehensible, and those responsible must be held accountable. . . . My hope is that they can now continue the healing process and those who failed them face a reckoning for letting a violent, abusive monster harm so many young women.”
Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse, said the FBI’s failures allowed Nassar to victimize more girls.
“Had the FBI done their job I never would have been put in the position of having to relinquish every shred of privacy to stop the abuse and coverup,” Denhollander tweeted. “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. They deserve answers.”
Nassar’s victims have long complained that a host of institutions, including the FBI and U.S. gymnastics organizations, failed to pursue allegations against Nassar when they first surfaced.
In 2015, USA Gymnastics conducted an internal inquiry into allegations that Nassar had abused athletes. The doctor retired from the organization and continued to see patients at Michigan State.
He was arrested on state charges in 2016, prompting a host of athletes to come forward and identify themselves as victims of his abuse.1.1k Comments
By Devlin Barrett
Devlin Barrett writes about the FBI and the Justice Department, and is the author of “October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election.” He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for National Reporting, for coverage of Russian interference in the U.S. election.