Did the FBI ignore crimes against young Olympic gymnasts on purpose?

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Like many FBI agents, I have investigated terrible, haunting attacks on children. Normally, in the constellation of crimes investigated by agents, no other violation elicits a higher degree of motivation and determination. That is why the proven gross dereliction by the FBI’s Indianapolis field office after receiving allegations of the repeated molestation of very young U.S. Olympic gymnasts seems beyond belief to anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in the bureau. It literally doesn’t compute — unless, and this is a painful caveat, the failure to investigate was purposeful. 

In stunning testimony before the Senate this week, four of the country’s Olympic gymnasts represented themselves and scores of other young victims, outlining terrible things that happened to them and issuing a heartbreaking plea for accountability.  

The FBI director and Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general testified as well, asserting that they would do everything they could to examine all possible wrongdoing. A careful read of the recently issued DOJ Inspector General’s (IG) report on this debacle raises the possibility of conspiratorial corruption by FBI agents and the organization responsible for the victimized gymnasts. “Everything that can be done” should start there. 

Here are the details, according to the IG: 

The IG report documents a meeting between Stephen Penny, then the CEO of USA Gymnastics, and Jay Abbott, then the agent in charge of the FBI’s Indianapolis field office, in early September 2015, just weeks after Penny brought the results of his organization’s internal investigation of sexual battery of minor gymnasts to the Indianapolis office in mid-July 2015. (USA Gymnastics is headquartered in Indianapolis.)

The report recounts a meeting at a bar between two men with separate but mutually intersecting agendas: Penny expressed concern to Abbott — not for the abused gymnasts but, rather, for the potential bad publicity for USA Gymnastics and that he, personally, might be “in trouble” (IG’s quotations). And Abbott, nearing retirement age, reportedly had his eye on a post-FBI job opportunity with the U.S. Olympic Committee; according to the IG’s report, “Abbott was aware that Penny appeared willing to put in a good word (with the Olympic Committee) on Abbott’s behalf.”  

Abbott proposed the issuance of “an FBI public statement that would place USA Gymnastics in a positive light.” 

At this point, we need to pause and consider the ramifications of this astounding, disturbing offer. There is a lot to unpack here, and none of it looks good.

First, the FBI does not issue public statements about received allegations, and certainly not statements that put anyone in any kind of “light.” Abbott undoubtedly knew this, and so this clearly seems a smoke-blowing exercise aimed at someone Abbott thought could help him.  

However, the effects of what happened next were immeasurably better for Penny than some farfetched notional public statement: Abbott’s FBI office did nothing with the allegations. It would have been monumentally risky for Abbott to assure Penny over drinks at a bar that the investigation would go away, but the investigation actually did go away and that non-action materially benefitted Penny and his organization.

Second, this fact pattern, verified by an independent IG investigation, appears to meet a “reasonable suspicion” threshold that would justify a follow-up criminal investigation of potentially corrupt activities between a government official and private citizen where it appears a mutually beneficial quid pro quo was articulated and intent was established. The FBI not only should, but must, in fairness to the victims, initiate such an investigation to find the truth.

Third, the brazen and easily disproved lies that the involved FBI agents asserted to the IG’s investigators appear to point to a cover-up of more nefarious intent than simple administrative mistakes and oversights. Inexplicably, Abbott told the IG that he never applied for the U.S. Olympic Committee job, knowing that the IG could easily establish that, in fact, he did. He apparently lied, perhaps because he understood that his pursuit of the job exposed him to a much harsher path.

Fourth, if a quid pro quo can be established for a post-FBI employment recommendation in exchange for deep-sixing an investigation damaging to USA Gymnastics, Abbott’s actions very possibly may place him outside the scope of his employment with the FBI and all the indemnifications that attach to that. That could mean the young victims in this case may have recourse to civil penalties against Abbott or Penny as individuals, whether or not a criminal case develops.

Let me be clear: The failures by certain agents in the FBI’s Indianapolis field office to document and report these allegations to FBI agents in Michigan, where the crimes occurred, or to the appropriate local police agency is so far beyond the norm, so contrary to routine investigative steps — particularly in child exploitation cases — that the unavoidable possibility that it was done on purpose must be considered.  

The failures of individuals in the Indianapolis office just don’t wash as mistakes, oversights or mishandlings. Receiving a favor in exchange for giving a favor seems a more logical, albeit damning and disheartening, explanation. It deserves a closer look. That role does not belong to the Justice Department’s IG; criminal corruption investigations belong to the FBI. The bureau needs to act and follow even embarrassing evidence, wherever it leads.

Wednesday’s riveting, heart-rending Senate testimony by Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman was followed by the more mechanical appearance of Justice’s IG, Michael Horowitz, and FBI Director Christopher Wray. It was a difficult task for both, but the stark juxtaposition between the victims’ pain and the lawyerly explanations of the government likely was not lost on the American people.  

Wednesday was not a good day for the FBI. If the FBI received a black eye from the Trump-Russia collusion investigation, the bureau’s face is a bloody pulp after the injustices done to child victims by the FBI’s inaction. Most damning is the IG’s conclusion that 70 young girls were attacked after the FBI was alerted to the attacker. If these girls suffered because an FBI agent in charge did a favor for someone who could help him get a retirement job, then the pursuit of justice is not an option. An aggressive investigation can determine if corruption played a role. It must be done.

The FBI is overwhelmingly made up of people of goodwill; two agents gave their lives earlier this year trying to stop a child exploiter in Florida. The FBI has the dedicated and motivated people who can do what our Olympic gymnasts deserve. Turn them loose. 

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.

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