13 Nassar victims file $130 million in claims against FBI for 'gross negligence'

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Victims of former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar filed administrative claims against the FBI for the bureau's "grossly negligent failure to investigate sexual abuse allegations" against the now-incarcerated former physician, lawyers announced Thursday.

The 13 women are seeking $10 million each, according to Jamie White, an Okemos attorney representing the group.

All were victimized by Nassar after July 2015, when the FBI Indianapolis office was first alerted to reports of three alleged sexual assaults by Nassar, he said. Another 17 months passed before Nassar was arrested by MSU police, White said during a media briefing.

Each of the women said they were assaulted by Nassar in that 17-month span of time, and Michigan native Grace French, one of hundreds of Nassar's victims, said he could have been stopped sooner if the FBI had taken the accusations seriously.

French, who is president of the Army of Survivors, an advocacy group, said Thursday that while MSU and USA Gymnastics have been talked about as institutions that enabled Nassar, the FBI should be added to the list of institutions that failed so many young girls and women.

"That lack of action by the FBI caused avoidable trauma for survivors like myself," French said. "No one should have been assaulted after the summer of 2015 because the FBI should have done its job. ... 

"This incredible systemic breakdown shows that there is needed change in the way that the FBI responds to cases of abuse. We need to continue to pursue accountability for the institutions that allowed athletes and children to continue to see Nassar, long after reports were made. They left us at the disposal of a predator."

The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to messages left by The Detroit News.

From left, Newsroom PR Public Relations Specialist Linda Williamson, attorney Antoinette Frazho, Grace French, a survivor of abuse by Larry Nassar and president of The Army of Survivors and attorney Jamie White during a virtual press conference on Thursday, April 21, 2022, to discuss $130 million in claims filed against the FBI.

More claims could be forthcoming, White said.

“We spend a lot of time and resources … encouraging young people to report sexual abuse when it occurs,” White said. “If we can’t report sexual abuse to the most powerful law enforcement agency arguably in the world, where can it be reported to?"

Victims of former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar filed 13 claims against the FBI for the bureau's "grossly negligent failure to investigate sexual abuse allegations" against Nassar, who is serving an effective life sentence.

Michigan resident Lindsey Lemke, another Nassar victim who has been vocal about the institutional failures that allowed Nassar to abuse women and girls for decades, has also filed a complaint. The other 11 women are not revealing their names publicly.

The claims, submitted this week to the Office of General Counsel for the FBI, are filed under the Federal Tort Claim Act, a statute that was used to get a 2021 settlement for victims of the 2018 shooting in the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, White said. The victims in that mass shooting reached a $127.5 million settlement with the federal government.

Under the statute, the women are required to make the administrative claims and the federal government has six months to resolve the complaint, White said. If that doesn't happen, the women can then file lawsuits. 

What FBI did, didn't do

An internal investigation by the Justice Department released in July said the FBI made fundamental errors in its handling of cases against Nassar and did not treat the case with the “utmost seriousness” after USA Gymnastics first reported the allegations to the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis in 2015.

The FBI has acknowledged its own conduct was inexcusable. In a congressional hearing in September, FBI Director Christopher Wray blasted his own agents who failed to appropriately respond to the complaints and made a promise to the victims that he was committed to “make damn sure everybody at the FBI remembers what happened here,” and that it never happens again. 

White said the FBI should be held accountable since it had a meeting on July 28, 2015, with USA Gymnastics officials and learned for the first time that Nassar was accused of assaulting three gymnasts.

"It is the FBI's formal policy that reports of child abuse be dealt with immediately," White said.

Five weeks after the initial report, the FBI conducted a phone interview with one of the alleged victims, White said. He added that the interview was not documented or forwarded to the appropriate authorities. The other two alleged victims were never interviewed, White said.

The agent in charge, former FBI Special Agent W. Jay Abbot, who retired in 2018, was told by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana to forward the allegations to the Lansing FBI field office.

"This was never done," White said. "Seventeen months after that July meeting, there was a referral to the Lansing FBI. It was not a referral from other FBI agents. It was a referral from the MSU Police Department, who through their own due diligence had blown this case wide open and ultimately decided to bring in the FBI."

White also said the FBI's Los Angeles bureau received information in May 2016 of Nassar's alleged abuse that occurred at the now-closed Karolyi Ranch in Texas, which was a training site for the nation's most prominent gymnasts. 

But FBI agents in Los Angeles failed to contact local authorities or refer the allegations to the FBI office in Lansing.

"Ultimately, (they) did not take any action until the MSUPD opened the case in Lansing almost 17 months later," White said, referring to the university's police agency. "Very similar to the negligence we saw in Indianapolis."

What happened to agents

During his testimony before Congress last fall, Wray said the agency had recently fired one of the two agents in Indianapolis criticized in the IG report, Michael Langeman.

But he said the agency was limited in its ability to go after the other agent, Abbott, since he retired from the agency in 2018 amid the internal investigation into how complaints against Nassar were handled.

The Justice Department declined to prosecute Abbott and Langeman in September 2020, according to the IG report.

In October, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, then the newly confirmed assistant attorney general for the department’s criminal division, told the Senate Judiciary Committee she would be taking a second look at the FBI’s alleged failure to promptly address complaints reported in 2015 against Nassar.

Monaco's office did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Nassar sexually abused and sexually assaulted dozens of girls and young women while at MSU and with USA Gymnastics. 

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to accuse Nassar of sexual assault, posted on Twitter that the FBI failure and cover-up need to be investigated and she is still waiting to hear whether the Department of Justice will file any changes.

"It's unacceptable to be here so many years later," Denhollander said. 

Denhollander exposed Nassar when she told her story of his abuse to the Indianapolis Star, and the newspaper published the allegations in September 2016. 

MSU police led the criminal investigation and Nassar was charged two months later in November with sexual assault by then Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. He was indicted the next month on federal child pornography charges.

Nassar was sentenced in Ingham and Eaton counties to 40 to 175 years and 40 to 125 years, respectively, for sexual assault. He also was sentenced to 60 years in prison on the federal child pornography charges.

Michigan State University reached a $500 million settlement with hundreds of Nassar's victims in 2018. USA Gymnastics reached a $380 million settlement with victims last year.