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'I blame entire system': Biles, star gymnasts blast FBI, Olympic officials over Nassar


Washington — Anguished gymnasts condemned FBI and Olympic officials for covering up Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse Wednesday, demanding accountability after the sports doctor was allowed to continue molesting girls for over a year after the FBI was first alerted to his crimes.

Four gymnasts, including star Simone Biles, testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the FBI's flawed handling of the Nassar investigation, saying agents downplayed, dismissed or ignored their initial claims of abuse.

The women said they viewed Wednesday's proceeding as their last chance to get answers and see that justice is done after the U.S. Department of Justice last year declined to prosecute the agents involved. 

"What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury that report in a drawer? They had legal legitimate evidence of child abuse and did nothing. If they aren’t going to protect me, I want to know: Who are they trying to protect?" said Olympian McKayla Maroney, detailing how an agent falsified a report about her abuse by Nassar.

"We know that these FBI agents have committed an obvious crime. ... Yet no recourse has been taken against them. The Department of Justice refused to prosecute these individuals. Why?"

Maroney spoke as part of a witness panel of Nassar victims, along with Biles, former Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and NCAA gymnast Maggie Nichols, who was the first to report Nassar's sexual abuse to USA Gymnastics in 2015.

"To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar, and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse," Biles told the senators through tears. 

"USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee knew that I was abused by their official team doctor long before I was ever made aware of their knowledge."

Biles said when she was a member of the 2016 Olympic team, neither USA Gymnastics, the Olympic Committee nor the FBI contacted her or her parents about the ongoing investigations of Nassar. She didn't find out until after the Rio Games, she said. 

"The scars of this horrific abuse continue to live with all of us. ... I can assure you that the impacts of this man's abuse are not ever over or forgotten," said Biles, who was the lone Nassar victim to compete in the Tokyo Games this summer. 

"I am a strong individual, and I will persevere. But I never should have been left alone to suffer the abuse of Larry Nassar."

Raisman said it took the FBI over 14 months to contact her, despite her “many requests” to be interviewed by the agency. Raisman also felt pressured by the FBI to consent to Nasser's plea deal, with agents diminishing the significance of her abuse, she said.

"The FBI made me feel like my abuse didn't count, and it wasn't a big deal. And I remember sitting there with the FBI agent and trying to convince me that it wasn't that bad," Raisman said.

"It's taken me years of therapy to realize that my abuse was bad. That it does matter." 

Nassar was charged in November 2016 and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison in 2018 for multiple counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and for possessing child pornography. More than 500 people have reported they were abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment.

Wednesday's second panel featured FBI Director Christopher Wray and Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, whose July report prompted the committee's hearing.

The FBI director said he was “deeply and profoundly sorry” to each of the gymnasts who testified and to others hurt by Nassar.

“I'm sorry that so many different people let you down over and over again. And I'm especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed, and that is inexcusable,” Wray said.

“It never should have happened, and we're doing everything in our power to make sure it never happens again.”

Reforms proposed

Horowitz's investigation determined a string of failures by FBI field offices to properly investigate allegations against the former Michigan State University sports doctor allowed Nassar to continue abusing young athletes for many months after Nichols and others came forward.

The IG report cited court documents showing 70 or more girls and women were allegedly sexually abused by Nassar between July 2015 — when the first complaint was filed with the FBI Indianapolis Field Office — and August 2016, when MSU Police received a separate complaint of abuse by Nassar.

More: Justice watchdog critical of FBI's delay in probing complaints about Nassar abuse

Raisman and others each said they knew personally other women who were abused by Nassar in that period after July 2015, including Michigan gymnast Kaylee Lorincz, who was in the audience of Wednesday's hearing room.

"I am haunted by the fact that even after reporting my abuse, so many women and girls had to suffer at the hands of Larry Nassar," Nichols testified Wednesday. 

"This hearing is one of our last opportunities to get justice. We ask that you do what is in your power to ensure those that engaged in wrongdoing are held accountable under the law."

Raisman and others raised several issues about the nonprofit U.S. Center for SafeSport, which was set up as a result of a 2017 law passed in response to the Nassar scandal.

"I​​​​​​f you're SafeSport and you are funded by the organization you're investigating, they're likely not going to do the right thing," Raisman said. "And so I think that it needs to be completely separate."

She also recounted instances of abuse victims whose reports to SafeSport were ignored or passed along to another entity. 

"It's just a complete mess, and the priority doesn't seem to be safety and well-being of athletes," Raisman said. "It seems to be protecting USA Gymnastics and doing everything to keep the PR good."

Raisman also again called for a full "independent" investigation of the FBI, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee. She suggested new leaders of the gymnastics organization shouldn't treat survivors as adversaries but give them a voice in oversight.

"All we're asking for is that when a child goes into gymnastics or goes to school or does anything that they can be spared abuse," Raisman said. "We've been made to feel that we don't matter by these organizations, and I never want another child to feel that way again."

In opening remarks, several senators promised they would demand accountability and reforms from the FBI and the Olympic organizations overseen by Congress.

"The FBI had two separate opportunities to do its job and it failed,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “It was a university police department (MSU) that finally did an investigation that finally brought Nassar to justice."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, called the IG's findings "a shocking picture of FBI dereliction of duty and gross incompetence." 

"Some may be tempted to minimize this misconduct as the fault of a few bad apples," Durbin said. "Make no mistake: Egregious failures, like this one, do not arise out of nowhere. They are enabled by systematic organizational failures of training, supervision, hiring and promotion."

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, urged Congress to do something to close a loophole in the sex tourism statute that the inspector general flagged in his report.

"This gap in the law allowed Larry Nassar to evade federal prosecution for assaulting children while traveling abroad, and that can never happen again," Grassley said. 

Watchdog findings

Horowitz's report cited "numerous and fundamental errors" by senior FBI officials in their work on the case, including "multiple" violations of FBI policies, the mishandling of evidence and failing to open an investigation after they received claims of abuse by Nassar.  

Ahead of the hearing, the Washington Post reported the FBI had fired one of the two agents in Indianapolis criticized in the IG report, identified by the Post as Michael Langeman. 

Wray on Wednesday confirmed the dismissal of Langeman two weeks ago without mentioning him by name, saying he had “failed to carry out even the most basic parts of the job.”

“I can now tell you that that individual no longer works for the FBI in any capacity,” Wray said.

Langeman had a lead role in the Nassar investigation. The IG probe found he had failed to document his September 2015 interview with Maroney about her Nassar abuse claims shortly after the interview took place.

The IG also said Langeman shouldn't have conducted the interview by phone because Maroney was a minor, and that's not best practice. The report of the Maroney interview that Langeman produced 17 months later included false statements and at least one material omission, Horowitz said. 

A separate Senate investigation, led by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, in 2019 faulted the FBI for not warning MSU of the allegations against Nassar or Twistars USA, an elite gymnastics club near Lansing where multiple victims of Nassar trained and said they were assaulted by him.

Horowitz's probe was launched to figure out why it took nearly a year for the FBI to pursue complaints against Nassar after USA Gymnastics first reported complaints about him to the FBI's field office in Indianapolis in July 2015.

The FBI basically conducted no investigative activity in the case for eight months, according to the IG report. And while the Indianapolis office was advised by federal prosecutors to transfer the Nassar matter to the FBI's Lansing office, it never did so — although the Indianapolis office told USA Gymnastics the transfer had occurred. 

Lansing's FBI office didn't learn about the allegations until after MSU Police executed a search warrant at Nassar’s home in September 2016, according to the inspector general's report.

The IG also found that when the FBI’s handling of the Nassar case came under scrutiny in 2017 and 2018, officials in the Indianapolis field office "did not take responsibility for their failures."

Indeed, an FBI official in the Indianapolis field office, W. Jay Abbott, lied in interviews with the IG's Office in an attempt to minimize the errors the office had made in handling the allegations, according to the report.

Abbott also met up with then-USA Gymnastics President Stephen Penny Jr. at a bar in 2015, where they discussed a potential job opportunity with the U.S. Olympic Committee that Abbott was interested in. 

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, suggested that prosecutors should look "seriously" at what criminal statutes might have been violated by Abbott and Penny in having "those disgusting discussions" amid the FBI inquiry. "If it's not illegal, it should be illegal," he said.

Wray told senators that Abbott retired from the agency over three years ago in 2018, saying it is “extremely frustrating that we are left with little disciplinary recourse when people retire before their cases can be adjudicated.”

FBI makes changes

Wray noted the FBI has accepted all of the IG report’s recommendations, including policy changes to ensure that agents are reporting abuse claims to state and local law enforcement on a parallel track, as well as improving communications and transfers between field offices.

“Part of what's built in is a bunch of, as I said, double and triple, even quadruple checks to make sure that that doesn't happen both in terms of how the initial reports are handled — the appropriate urgency there — but also in terms of communication,” he said.

“I have tried to make clear in very stern language to, not just the field offices ... but to the executive management of every single field office and the entire leadership team of the FBI, that on no planet is what happened in this case acceptable,” Wray added.

He also said there's additional training required of staff, including one that will teach the "lessons learned" from the Nassar case. 

Durbin said he was "disappointed" the Justice Department did not send anyone to the hearing to explain the decision not to prosecute Abbott or others at the FBI involved in the matter. He noted the department's policy is not to comment on such decisions.

Horowitz at the hearing highlighted a question raised earlier by the four gymnasts — what is the proper oversight mechanism for sports bodies like USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee that are sanctioned by the government to oversee athletes and their well-being.

He suggested something like an inspector general model might be useful, if it's funded independently of the organizations it is responsible for, as his office is. 

mburke@detroitnews.com