DOJ: Larry Nassar Allegations Weren't Treated with 'Utmost Seriousness' by FBI

Blake SchusterContributor IJuly 14, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 06: The offices of USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee are seen on November 6, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The committee announced its intention to revoke USA Gymnastics' status as the national governing body in continuing fallout from the Dr. Larry Nassar scandal. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

A Department of Justice investigation into the FBI’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar concluded the agency failed to respond with the "utmost seriousness and urgency that [the allegations] deserved and required, made numerous and fundamental errors when they did respond to them, and violated multiple FBI policies."

In a 119-page report released by the DOJ's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on Wednesday afternoon, the DOJ noted FBI officials in Indianapolis did not take immediate steps to investigate Nassar, warn proper state officials of the allegations against Nassar and did not properly transfer information to the FBI’s Detroit Field Office and Lansing, Michigan Resident Agency—where Nassar treated patients as a Michigan State University employee. It also noted that although FBI officials in the Los Angeles office did begin an investigation, they did not "notify local law enforcement or the FBI Lansing Resident Agency of the information" they had learned.

The DOJ found that inaction by the FBI led to Nassar sexually abusing at least 70 girls and young women between July 2015, when the FBI Indianapolis Field Office learned of the allegations, and September 2016, when the Indianapolis Star first broke the story and MSU police began investigating. 

“We concluded that the Indianapolis [Supervisory Special Agent], in an effort to minimize or excuse his errors, made false statements during two OIG-compelled interviews regarding his interview of one of Nassar’s victims,” the investigation concluded. “Similarly, we found that [Indianapolis Field Office Special Agent in Charge W. Jay] Abbott, in an effort to minimize or excuse his own and his office’s actions, falsely asserted in two separate OIG interviews that he communicated with both the Detroit SAC and the Los Angeles SAC about the Nassar allegations and sent [electronic communications] to both field offices in the fall of 2015. We found no evidence to support these claims.”

The Department of Justice declined to prosecute Abbott and the Indianapolis SSA in September 2020. 

Senator Dick Durbin @SenatorDurbin

The FBI’s outrageous failures in this case led to more athletes enduring horrific, traumatic assaults. As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I pledge that we will examine this serious and unacceptable injustice to help prevent future, similar tragedies. <a href="https://t.co/Rpdxn0tvhi">https://t.co/Rpdxn0tvhi</a>

In 2016, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years and 40 to 125 years in prison after pleading guilty to seven and three counts of criminal sexual conduct in two separate counties. More than 150 women and girls said in court that Nassar sexually abused them. Nassar was also sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges.

The OIG said it reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed more than 60 witnesses, several victims and parents of victims in conducting its investigation, but could not legally compel the Lansing Special Agent, who retired in 2018, to interview. USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny declined to participate in a second voluntary interview with the OIG, instead offering a proffer via his attorneys.

Penny first alerted the Indianapolis Field Office in July 2015 following a USAG internal investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Nassar from multiple athletes. Per the DOJ report, the following six weeks saw “limited follow-up” by federal agents during which the Indianapolis office did not formally document any of its activities related to the Nassar case including the original meeting with Penny in July. 

No formal investigation was opened by the Indianapolis office during this timeframe.

"The only 2015 Indianapolis Field Office documentation located by the OIG consisted of five pages of handwritten notes taken by two of the FBI attendees at the July 2015 meeting with USA Gymnastics, three pages of notes taken by the two agents at the September 2 interview of the one athlete, a handful of email exchanges between Penny and the FBI Indianapolis Field Office, and approximately 45 emails and text messages among agents and prosecutors," the OIG concluded. "... The Indianapolis Field Office did not advise state or local authorities about the allegations and did not take any action to mitigate the risk to gymnasts that Nassar continued to treat. Instead, the Indianapolis agents and Assistant U.S. Attorney determined that, if the FBI had jurisdiction, venue would likely be most appropriate in the Western District of Michigan and the FBI’s Lansing Resident Agency, where MSU is located and where Nassar treated patients."

The Indianapolis SSA told an SSA at the Los Angeles Field Office that he created a formal FBI complaint in September 2015 to transfer the Nassar case from Indiana to Lansing. Despite multiple officials attempting to locate the document, the OIG found no evidence the Lansing Resident Agency was ever informed or received such documents in 2015. 

The OIG additionally found Abbott violated the FBI’s conflicts of interest policies by lobbying Penny to help secure a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee while Abbott’s Indianapolis office looked into claims against Nassar.

Abbott met with Penny at a bar in the fall of 2015 to discuss both the USOC job and the Nassar investigation despite Abbott continuing to participate in FBI discussions related to the case. During the meeting, Penny “expressed concern” to the FBI Special Agent about the media portrayal of USA Gymnastics and asked Abbott if he was "in trouble." Abbott responded by proposing the FBI release a public statement that would “place USA Gymnastics in a positive light” while Penny put in a “good word” with the USOC on Abbott’s behalf. 

Abbott twice told OIG investigators he did not apply for the USOC job in 2017 despite evidence confirming otherwise. Abbott retired from the FBI in 2018. 

"We further found that, under federal ethics regulations, Abbott exercised extremely poor judgment by failing to consult with a designated agency ethics official regarding his ongoing involvement in Nassar investigation discussions at the same time he was seeking Penny's help and guidance about a U.S. Olympic Committee job opportunity," the report stated. "Abbott should have known—and in fact did know according to the evidence we found—that his actions would raise a question regarding his impartiality. We further concluded that Abbott made false statements to the OIG about the job discussion, his application for the position, and his handling of the Nassar allegations."

Among the four recommendations presented by the OIG in its conclusion, the DOJ urged the FBI to "develop a policy describing the circumstances, if any, under which telephonic interviews of alleged child abuse victims, including adults who had allegedly been victims of abuse as children, are appropriate" and reassess policies to "precisely describe" when FBI employees are required to promptly contact and coordinate with state and local officials after receiving allegations of crimes against children. 

The OIG further recommended the FBI reassess policies to require employees to confirm receipt of transfers between field offices when dealing with complaints of serious or multi-victim sexual abuse. 

In response to the OIG report, FBI Assistant Director Douglas Leff wrote the actions of Abbott are not representative of the FBI or its current and former employees. Leff noted FBI Director Christopher Wray has already begun implementing changes within the agency to strengthen its policies. 

"We accept in full the OIG's recommendations 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," Leff wrote. "At Director Wray's direction, the FBI has taken immediate action to ensure that the failures of the employees outlined in the Report do not happen again. ... As we introduce the changes that Director Wray ordered, we do not lose sight of the victims that suffered abuse and mistreatment because of potential missed opportunities to disrupt the further criminal behavior of the now-convicted Nassar in 2015 and 2016. 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."