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

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the last name of Lt. Andrea Munford of the MSU Police Department.

Washington — In a long-awaited report, the U.S. Department of Justice's internal watchdog on Wednesday documented a string of failures by FBI field offices to properly investigate allegations against former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz's office found that senior officials in the FBI Indianapolis Field Office "failed to respond ... with the urgency that the allegations required" and made "fundamental errors when it did respond." 

Those mistakes included failing to notify the appropriate FBI field office in Lansing or state or local authorities of the allegations or to take other steps to neutralize the "ongoing threat posed by Nassar."

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, seen here in 2018, found that senior officials in the FBI Indianapolis Field Office "failed to respond ...with the urgency that the allegations required" concerning serial sex abuser Larry Nassar and made "fundamental errors when it did respond."

The report suggests that the delays by investigators allowed Nassar to continue abusing young athletes for months. It cites court documents showing 70 or more were allegedly sexually abused by Nassar between July 2015 — when the first complaint against Nassar was filed with the FBI Indianapolis Field Office — and August 2016, when MSU Police received a separate complaint of sexual abuse by Nassar.

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. Hundreds of people have said they were abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment.

The Office of Inspector General 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."

"Instead, they provided incomplete and inaccurate information to make it appear that they had been diligent in responding to the sexual abuse allegations," the report says.

In addition to failing to document interviews and evidence related to Nassar allegations, an FBI official in the Indianapolis field office, W. Jay Abbott, lied in interviews with the Inspector General's Office to minimize the errors the office had made in handling the allegations, according to the report.

Abbott also talked with USA Gymnastics President Stephen Penny Jr. about a potential job opportunity with the U.S. Olympic Committee while the two were discussing the allegations against Nassar.

Abbott had asked Penny to put in a good word for him when he applied for the Olympic Committee job in 2017 but he didn't get the job. Later, he denied to the Office of Inspector General in two interviews that he applied for the position, claiming it would have been a conflict of interest. 

“Abbott should have known — and we found that he in fact did know — that this conduct would raise questions regarding his impartiality,” the Inspector General’s Office said in a Wednesday press release.

The Department of Justice declined to prosecute Abbott or the Indianapolis Field Office for making false statements. Abbott retired from the FBI in 2018.

Grace French, who is president of the nonprofit group Army of Survivors, wants the Department of Justice to reevaluate its decision to decline to prosecute the agents whose alleged misconduct is described in the report. 

“The FBI shouldn’t be above the law. They just showed every other FBI agent that they can lie and be offered jobs and do these unethical things and get away with it. Where’s the accountability in that?” French said. “There are so many lives that will be in danger if they don’t set an example.”

French, a Lansing native now living in Canton Township, was a dancer abused by Nassar at MSU's Sports Medicine Clinic from 2007 to 2015, starting at age 12.

“I’m frustrated beyond belief," she said. At that time, USA Gymnastics had started an internal investigation into complaints about Nassar but before the organization had reported concerns to the FBI in Indianapolis.

"They failed survivors at such a fundamental level that we have a number of survivors: We have 70 survivors abused between the first report in 2015 and when MSU PD got the report. That’s 70 lives they essentially threw away,” French said about the FBI. “They don’t care about athletes or children’s lives that they are bound to protect.” 

Reaction to 'mind-boggling' report 

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Jerry Moran of Kansas, who previously led a bipartisan Senate investigation into systemic abuse within U.S. Olympic sports, were briefed Wednesday afternoon by Horowitz on the report. 

Afterward, they called for hearings before the Senate on the findings, demanding accountability for the agency’s failure to pursue Nassar and the “possible cover-up” that occurred in Indianapolis.

“The Department of Justice now needs to decide whether it's going to be yet another institution that fails survivors, or if it's going to enforce some measure of accountability on its own,” said Blumenthal, a Democrat.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, suggested the Department of Justice reevaluate whether criminal charges should be filed against negligent FBI agents in connection with the botched investigation into sexual abuse allegations against MSU doctor Larry Nassar.

Blumenthal suggested he wants the DOJ to take a second look at whether the documents and oral statements made to the FBI or IG investigators that were “just plain false” warrant criminal charges.

“The circumstances certainly indicate criminal intent, so I would like to know why there were no criminal charges and whether these agents will be held accountable,” Blumenthal said.

Moran, a Republican, called the report “mind-boggling” and demanded to know the justification for the Department of Justice's declining to prosecute.

“It's unexplainable to me. I don't understand how an FBI agent, an enforcer of the law — a person takes an oath to support the law — conducted themselves in a way that was so damaging, certainly to justice, but also to the individuals,” Moran said.

In response to the report Wednesday, the FBI said "this should not have happened," calling the actions of FBI employees named in the report as "inexcusable."

"The FBI will never lose sight of the harm that Nassar’s abuse caused. The actions and inactions of certain FBI employees described in the report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization," the agency said in a statement.

"The FBI has taken affirmative steps to ensure and has confirmed that those responsible for the misconduct and breach of trust no longer work FBI matters."   

The FBI said it previously implemented improvements to ensure that serious allegations, such as those against Nassar, "are promptly shared with our law enforcement partners and within the FBI." 

The agency also said it is "fully committed" to implementing the recommendations made by the Inspector General's Office, which included changing policies related to transferring complaints between field offices and more precisely mandating when FBI agents must "promptly" coordinate and contact local and state law enforcement. 

Other errors discovered

Horowitz's probe set out to determine 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 was tipped off to concerns about Nassar in July 2015but then conducted no investigative activity in the case for eight months, according to the IG report. The Indianapolis office was advised by federal prosecutors to transfer the Nassar matter to the FBI's Lansing office but never did so — even though the Indianapolis office told USA Gymnastics the transfer had happened. 

USA Gymnastics again raised complaints about Nassar with the FBI's Los Angeles office in early 2016. Horowitz's report also found that the Los Angeles office had failed to notify the FBI Lansing office or state or local authorities of the allegations against Nassar. 

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

The FBI's delays were part of a pattern of institutional failures to detect or intervene in Nassar's crimes, including from USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Michigan State University. 

"These findings are absolutely appalling and reinforce the systemic failure that allowed a monster to continue inflicting sexual abuse on collegiate and amateur athletes. We must ensure this can never happen again," said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

Peters' statement highlighted proposed legislation that would require university officials to show they have reviewed reports of sexual abuse by employees. 

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, whose district encompasses MSU, said she is "so disturbed" by the report's findings that she will be requesting a private briefing to ensure it doesn't happen again. 

Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in Ingham County on seven sexual assault charges and 40 to 125 years in Eaton County on three sexual assault charges tied to Twistars. He was already serving a 60-year federal sentence for possessing 37,000 images of child pornography.

It took nearly three years for Horowitz to release the report, despite calls from members of Congress to accelerate its release. 

Horowitz's office had been investigating the FBI's handling of sexual abuse allegations against Nassar since 2018, years after USA Gymnastics and some of Nassar's victims had contacted the agency about the allegations. 

Moran and Blumenthal's investigation in 2019 found that the FBI had "sat on evidence of (Nassar's) sexual misconduct for over a year" and faulted the FBI for not warning MSU of the allegations against him or Twistars USA, an elite gymnastics club near Lansing where multiple victims of Nassar trained and said they were assaulted by him. 

The senators' report noted that Nassar had remained employed by MSU for 420 days after the USAG's initial contact with the FBI in July 2015.

Another victim responds

The senators' probe found the FBI’s investigation "dragged on and was shuffled between field offices" while Nassar continued to see patients at MSU until Aug. 20, 2016 — the day after gymnast Rachael Denhollander filed a complaint against Nassar with the MSU police alleging sexual abuse she had suffered in 2000.

Denhollander was the first woman to go public with her complaints about Nassar.

"I'm absolutely disgusted — the depth of betrayal for law enforcement to engage in this kind of corruption allowing over 100 little girls to continue being abused," Denhollander told The Detroit News Wednesday. "Law enforcement is supposed to be the place where you go to be safe. And so often, they're the ones helping cover it up and keep it quiet."

Larry Nassar abuse victim Rachael Denhollander said she was "absolutely disgusted" by the FBI's investigatory delays outlined in a Department of Justice inspector general's report released Wednesday.

She called for criminal charges to be brought against the agents who failed to appropriately investigate and for policymakers to review sovereign immunity laws that can shield law enforcement officials from lawsuits. 

"The reality is that it can take six years to get these kinds of answers. And then there is zero accountability for these bad actors," Denhollander said. "What this report has really done is detailed bad acting and then said it doesn't matter. There are no consequences if you behave this way."

There has been fallout at other institutions involved in the Nassar scandal. 

Michigan State University agreed in 2018 to pay $500 million to more than 300 women and girls who said they were assaulted by Nassar. An investigation under former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette resulted in charges against William Strampel, former MSU dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Nassar’s former boss; Kathie Klages, the former head MSU women's gymnastics coach and former MSU President Lou Anna Simon.

Strampel and Klages served time in jail. Simon was bound over for trial in 2019 on charges of lying to police, but a judge dismissed the case after ruling prosecutors didn’t produce enough evidence to bind the case to circuit court. Attorney General Dana Nessel, Schuette's successor, appealed the dismissal.

In 2018, USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy and proposed in January 2020 to pay $215 million to its Nassar victims as part of its bankruptcy settlement plan. The group has cooperated with at least six different entities that have looked into the Nassar situation.

John Geddert, a former U.S. Olympics gymnastics coach from the Lansing area with ties to Nassar, died from suicide in February.

For his part, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in Ingham County on seven sexual assault charges and 40 to 125 years in Eaton County on three sexual assault charges tied to Twistars. He was already serving a 60-year federal sentence for possessing 37,000 images of child pornography in a separate case.

The senators' staff reviewed emails showing that the USA Gymnastics had attempted to assist the FBI early on by trying to arrange interviews and connect Nassar's victims and their families with FBI investigators. After those efforts, the FBI eventually interviewed Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney by phone in September 2015, in which she described Nassar's criminal behavior.

Maroney told the committee she did not recall further communication from the FBI until she was interviewed again in 2016 in California, where she repeated the description of Nassar's explicit conduct that she had given the FBI in 2015. 

Also, Lt. Andrea Munford of the MSU Police Department, the lead investigator in the Michigan case that led to Nassar's sentencing or sexual assault crimes, told the Senate committee that she first heard from an FBI agent in September 2016 who told her the agency was investigating Nassar for federal sex crimes involving interstate travel.

But when local police found the child porn while executing a search warrant at Nassar's home, that evidence was turned over to the FBI in Lansing, whom Munford said had no prior knowledge of Nassar or any investigation into him, according to the senators' report. 

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

mburke@detroitnews.com