In a series of October 2011 emails to then USA Gymnastics chief executive officer Steve Penny and board president Peter Vidmar, a gymnastics coach described in detail a series allegations of how Marvin Sharp, head coach of the U.S. Pan American Games team just months earlier, had sexually abused young gymnasts.
One email ended with a plea.
“Protect these girls, they deserve it,” the coach wrote.
A 10-month investigation commissioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee in response to the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal has revealed just how completely USA Gymnastics, the USOC, Michigan State University and several law enforcement agencies including the FBI have failed in that mission.
Ropes & Gray, the Boston-based law firm hired by the USOC to investigate the handling of the Nassar case, in a 233-page devastating rebuke details how USA Gymnastics, the USOC, and Michigan State and law enforcement enabled the former U.S. Olympic and USA Gymnastics team physicians decades of sexual abuse of young gymnasts and athletes.
In what is the most complete portrait to date of the biggest sex abuse scandal in American sports history, the report released Monday outlines the missteps, the negligence and indifference within USA Gymnastics, the USOC and Michigan State that led to Nassars predatory behavior, and the extent USA Gymnastics and USOC officials, at times in concert with FBI and Indianapolis police, went to keep Nassars misconduct from the public.
The report highlights how USA Gymnastics, Michigan State and law enforcement dismissed allegations and disregarded or missed red flags pointing to sexual abuse by Nassar dating back to the 1990s. It also details Pennys efforts to enlist the FBI and local Indiana police to provide cover for the Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics handling of Nassar and other sex abuse cases, and how a USA Gymnastics cover-up and inaction by two FBI offices allowed Nassar to abuse perhaps dozens of young athletes in the final 16 months before his misconduct became public.
Included in the report is a July 21, 2015 email Penny sent himself in which he outlined evidence, steps to take and concerns about the Nassar case that John Manley, an attorney for dozens of Nassar survivors, described as a “sort of a road map to a conspiracy to cover this up.”
Then USOC CEO Scott Blackmun and Alan Ashley, USOC chief of sport performance, the report said, failed to take action or notify USOC board members after they were informed of allegations during the summer of 2015, deleted emails related to Nassar and in Blackmuns case and misled a USOC board member about when the USOC was informed of the allegations against Nassar.
And in a theme that runs through the report, Ropes & Grays investigators confirmed what Nassars survivors have maintained since the scandal became public more than two years ago: that Nassars abuse was the product of the toxic culture within the top level of USA Gymnastics.
“While Nassar bears ultimate responsibility for his decades-long abuse of girls and young women, he did not operate in a vacuum,” the report said. “Instead, he acted within an ecosystem that facilitated his criminal acts. Numerous institutions and individuals enabled his abuse and failed to stop him, including coaches at the club and elite level, trainers and medical professionals, administrators and coaches at Michigan State University (“MSU”), and officials at both United States of America Gymnastics (“USAG”) and the United States Olympic Committee (the “USOC”).
“These institutions and individuals ignored red flags, failed to recognize textbook grooming behaviors, or in some egregious instances, dismissed clear calls for help from girls and young women who were being abused by Nassar.
“Multiple law enforcement agencies, in turn, failed effectively to intervene when presented with opportunities to do so. And when survivors first began to come forward publicly, some were shunned, shamed or disbelieved by others in their own communities. The fact that so many different institutions and individuals failed the survivors does not excuse any of them, but instead reflects the collective failure to protect young athletes.”
The report was released against the backdrop of USOC proceedings to strip USA Gymnastics of its national governing body status and the federation, which (like the USOC) is facing dozens of civil lawsuits related to Nassar, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week. But Mondays release prompted renewed calls on Congress to shut down the USOC and help along with current and former Olympic sport athletes create a more athlete-centric governing body for the American Olympic movement.
The Colorado Springs-based USOC is a tax exempt non-profit organization. It reported $519 million in revenues in 2016 and 2017, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.
“They should be done,” Manly said of the USOC. “That organization should cease to exist. Its s federally chartered corporation and Congress should de-charter them and start anew.”
The USOC, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and other NGBs lack of transparency and failure to implement effective policies to address athlete safety has been a source of frustration on Capitol Hill.
“It is positive that USOCs independent investigators published their report today, if only so that the USOC can no longer cite an ongoing independent investigation as its reason for delaying change,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) chairman of the Senate sub-committee with jurisdiction over the health and safety of Olympic and NCAA athletes. “As my subcommittee finalizes our extensive, bipartisan report – containing legislative and non-legislative recommendations to better protect young athletes from sexual predators – I expect USOC to cooperate with Congress and expediently begin its process of implementing much-needed cultural and procedural change.”
USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland, board chairman Larry Probst and board chair-elect Susanne Lyons in an interview with the Southern California News Group Monday said they had not had time yet to review the full report but welcomed changes that Hirshland said would provide a “new path forward.”
“Our organization is absolutely prepared to make significant changes that are appropriate,” Hirshland said. “Those changes may be at the macro level of our governance structure and our relationship with the fed government, it may be our policies and procedures.
“I do think the organization is prepared to make significant changes. I dont think that we would deny that change is required.”
The 10-month Ropes & Gray investigation was led by former federal prosecutors Joan McPhee and James Dowden who interviewed more than 100 people, including 60 former and current USA Gymnastics and USOC employees, and had access to 1.3 million documents.
“We are indebted to the brave women who came forward and have made our sport safer by speaking out against the horrific acts of Larry Nassar,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement Monday. “USA Gymnastics is one of the organizations that let them down, and we are working to regain their trust and that of the entire gymnastics community.
“…The one thing that has been clear throughout the process is the shared commitment of our members to foster a safe, positive and encouraging environment where young people can learn gymnastics and life skills to compete and pursue their dreams.”
Former U.S. Olympic and national team coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, former USA Gymnastics employees Deborah Van Horn and Gary Warren, USA Gymnastics attorneys Scott Himsel and Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, and former FBI special agent W. Jay Abbott declined to be interviewed by Ropes & Gray.
Blackmun and former USA Gymnastics chief executive officer Steve Penny were interviewed, although Penny declined to answer questions about the alleged removal of documents from the Karolyi Ranch in remote Central Texas in November 2016.
Penny was arrested in October after a Texas grand jury indicted him on felony evidence tampering charges. The indictment alleges Penny ordered the removal of documents from the Karolyi Ranch related to Nassars activities. He was forced to resign his USA Gymnastics position under pressure from the USOC in March 2017.
“The indictment further alleges that the removal of the documents was done for the purpose of impairing the ongoing investigation by destroying or hiding the documents,” according to the Walker County, Texas District Attorneys office.
Penny has denied any wrongdoing
Manly said the report, the Penny “note to self” in particular, proves that USA Gymnastics has withheld documents from attorneys representing survivors in violation of court orders.
In addition to not notifying any member of the USOC board of directors or Safe Sport staff when they were first informed of allegations against Nassar in 2015, Ropes & Gray found that Blackmun failed to clear up a board members understanding that USOC security chief Larry Buendort was the only USOC employee aware of the Nassar allegations prior to September 2016. Blackmun also failed to explain to Lyons “not only that he and Mr. Ashley had been the first to know of the allegations, but also that Mr. Buendorf, promptly after learning of the allegations from Mr. Penny, had dutifully reported those allegations to Mr. Blackmun.”
“USAGs and the USOCs inaction and concealment had consequences: dozens of girls and young women were abused during the year-long period between the summer of 2015 and September 2016,” the report said.
“I cant really comment on Scotts motivation for not sharing that with the board at that time. We certainly wished that he had and I think its disappointing that this report reveals that he did not,” Lyons said Monday.
Blackmun was forced to resign in February. Blackmun received $1.3 million in compensation from the USOC and another$49,098 from a related organization in 2017, according to IRS and USOC financial records.
Ashley, who was paid $720,044 in 2017, was fired by Hirshland Monday morning.
Although Nassar was Team USAs physician through five Olympic Games cylces, Probst said Monday “the first time I ever heard Larry Nassars name was” in September 2016.
Probst said he had “No contact whatsoever with Steve Penny and my conversations with Scott were about how surprised we were to hear details of this story and to talk about how we would address with the USOC board at our meeting the following month. Which we did. Again no conversations with Steve Penny and conversations with Scott were about moving forward.
“My understanding that Scott had had conversations with Steve Penny in 2016 and instructed Steve Penny to contact law enforcement,” Probst said. “And this report (said that was in) 2015, not 2016. I dont feel like he misled me but obviously the information he had in 2015 was not shared with the full board of the USOC and in hindsight that would been the appropriate steps for him to take.”
Concerns about Nassar were brought to Ashleys attention as early as 2013, the Ropes & Gray investigation found. In a January 2013 email to Ashley regarding USA Gymnastics sports medicine program, Penny wrote “if Larry Nassar is the gatekeeper then we have a real issue.”
The report includes a July 30, 2015 email to Abbott previously reported by SCNG and other media outlets in which Penny said “Our biggest concern” is “how we contain [Nassar] from sending shockwaves through the community.”
As part of the USA Gymnastics cover-up, Nassar was allowed to retire in September 2015 without USA Gymnastics revealing the real reason for the move. USA Gymnastics also did not inform Michigan State of the reason for Nassars stepping down and Nassar continued to see patients at the universitys sports medicine clinic for another year.
“This period is also marked by unexplained delays on the part of the FBI,” the Ropes & Gray investigator wrote.
The report details how Penny repeatedly turned to Abbott as he tried to keep the Nassar allegations from going public and later consulted with Abbott about USA Gymnastics “timeline,” the Penny and organization of how it dealt with the Nassar allegations.
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Penny first reached to Abbott just weeks after he was informed in June 2015 of allegations that Nassar had sexually assaulted gymnast Maggie Nichols at a U.S. national team training camp at the Karolyi Ranch and continued consult with the agent after the scandal became public.
In addition to seeking advice and help from Abbott, Penny also floated the idea that he could help the soon-to-be retiring agent land the USOC security chief position after Buendorf retired a few months later.
Ropes & Gray found that “in the fall of 2015 … Mr. Penny and Agent Abbott met informally for a beer and conversation, where Mr. Penny offered to provide assistance to Agent Abbott in securing a high‐level position as Chief Security Officer for the USOC.”
Penny went so far as to recommend Abbott to Buendorf in the summer of 2016, according to an email, writing that the agent “might be the perfect fit” for the USOC post.
Penny in the fall of 2016, the report said, also “reached out to Agent Abbott and sought his input and assistance in connection with the media coverage of Nassars abuse and the manner in which USAG was being portrayed.”
During this time the FBIs Indianapolis office failed to interview two key U.S. team members who had been sexually assaulted by Nassar. The case was eventually transferred to the Detroit office where again the investigation stalled, according to Ropes & Gray.
“The Nassar investigation appears to have languished in the Detroit office with no action for over seven months,” report said. “It is unclear whether the investigation ever would have left its dormant status in the Detroit office if it were not for the intervening event of USAG making its second referral to the FBIs Los Angeles office (in 2016).”
On September 21, 2016 after the scandal went public, Penny again emailed Abbott.
“Will call you shortly if that is okay. Am I in trouble?” Penny wrote.
“No. …and no worries. Hopefully you have chatted with LAs FBIs SAC by now re our conversation last night,” Abbott responded. “Catch up with you tomorrow during business hours if you desire.”
A few months later, on Feb. 17, 2017, with Penny and USA Gymnastics under mounting pressure, Penny forwarded Abbott a job posting for the USOC security position.
“Im also aware of your timeline reporting and will be happy to discuss further tomorrow morning,” Abbott wrote.
Penny emailed Abbott again later that day.
“The (U.S.) attorney is not helping,” Penny complained. “This is getting much worse for me.”
“Sorry to hear that re the AUSA,” Abbott said. “He must have his reasons.”
The FBI, Justice Departments Inspector General as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee are currently conducting investigations into the FBIs handling of the Nassar case.
Even after Nassars removal, Penny, Vidmar and other top USA Gymnastics officials failed to inform the organizations employees of the real reason for the departure, enabling Nassar to continue abusing young gymnasts and athletes and putting others of unsuspecting athletes at risk.
“Not only had Mr. Penny kept the vast majority of USAG personnel in the dark about Nassars alleged misconduct, but the organization also failed to implement any systematic child-protective measures to ensure that Nassar would be stopped from further abusing athletes while under investigation for serial sexual abuse,” the report said. “As a result, Nassar not only remained on USAGs list of recommended physicians on the organizations public website, but he also continued to see patients and pursue other opportunities following his departure from USAG.”
Nassar was invited by an uninformed USA Gymnastics employee to speak at a sports medicine event sponsored by the organization in February 2016. Nassar was uninvited after Penny and other top officials became aware of the event.
A more alarming result of Penny and USA Gymnastics lack of transparency after Nassars removal was that months after he was forced out Nassar remained listed on USA Gymnastics “Healthcare Referral Network.” The network is a list of USA Gymnastics approved sport medicine personnel around the country and is posted on the organizations website.
“I feel like I have indirectly been put in a position where I may have recommended that a parent put their child in harms way because staff werent made aware of allegations,” Rachel Brazo, USA Gymnastics director of program administration wrote in an email to USA Gymnastics chief operating officer Ron Galimore and Mark McCreary, the organizations chief administrative officer at USAG.