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Congress needs to push for more accountability in gymnasts’ tragic sex abuse

US Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles pauses as she testifies during a Senate Judiciary hearing about the Inspector General's report on the FBI handling of the Larry Nassar investigation of sexual abuse of Olympic gymnasts on Wednesday, September 15, 2021.
Washington Examiner/Pool

The horrific testimony from four U.S. Olympic gymnasts last week in the Larry Nassar child sexual abuse case was clearly a painful experience for the long-suffering witnesses and their families. In the history of deplorable, mass sexual child abuse, this ranks right up there with the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church.

It was clear from the testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and from all senators that accountability was the focal point. The predicate for the hearing was the Justice Department’s inspector general report of July 14 on the FBI’s bungling of the case. The Bureau was the target of slings and arrows from every witness and senator, the inspector general, and yes, even the FBI director himself.

When the FBI’s Indianapolis Field Office first received allegations of Nassar’s exploitations, that very same office was readying formal charges against Jared Fogle of Subway fame, another serial child molester, for child pornography and commercial sex acts with minors. Fogle pled guilty and is incarcerated.

Nassar, too, pled guilty to child pornography and sex acts with minors. He, too, is incarcerated. But there’s a sharp contrast in how the cases were handled, which in turn led to a sharp contrast in consequences and accountability.

Fogle was hammered by the enforcement system. The case was started by state officials who partnered with local authorities and the FBI. The Bureau did not have sole jurisdiction, so there was transparency throughout the enforcement process.

In Nassar’s case, the FBI alone had the allegations and sat on them for a year. There was no transparency. During that one-year period, between 70 and 120 additional girls were sexually abused by Nassar. 

In the world of law enforcement jurisdiction, the FBI is often the big bully on the block. That’s often the case when the FBI works with state and locals, but also with federal agencies. They take full advantage of the vast resources they get from Congress and too often display their arrogance in the form of taking credit for joint successes at press conferences, whether merited or not. Credit equals currency with Congress. The FBI culture is very narcissistic that way.

The Bureau also has a phobia about sharing information in high profile cases with anyone unless they are forced to. That’s a hangover from pre-9/11 days, but the phobia still lingers with some diehards.

The heads of the FBI’s 56 field offices around the country are the Special Agents in Charge (SACs). These SACs each have their own fiefdom, removed from HQ in Washington. They often view themselves as barons. Once promoted to SAC, they’ve been known to seek connections — in anticipation of a cushy job post-retirement, which is mandatory at age 57. Once they get a high-paying outside gig, they usually bring their buddies and proteges in post-retirement and establish a beachhead. 

According to the IG report, it’s apparent that dynamic was in play during the Nassar case. The president of USA Gymnastics, Stephen Penny, brought the allegations in July 2016 to Indianapolis field office SAC at the time W. Jay Abbott, who in collaboration with his supervisory special agent (SSA) Michael Langeman, sat on the case and — according to the IG —subsequently covered up the fact they had done so. In reading the IG report, it’s apparent to me that Abbott was eyeing a cushy post-retirement gig from Penny as head of security for the Olympic Committee; Penny apparently wanted Abbott to try to minimize the blowback on USA Gymnastics and to help keep Penny himself out of “trouble.”

According to the IG report, Penny and Abbott explicitly discussed job opportunities for Abbott while Abbott was involved in the case.

It appears that the arrogance and ambition of an FBI SAC contributed to the Nassar case languishing.

The allegations only became public after the Michigan State University police learned about them and took action. The Indianapolis Star reported on it, and the FBI did an internal review. According to the IG, Abbott and Langeman lied and covered up their negligence. Penny resigned the following year as details emerged about inactivity in the case.

When the IG review commenced in 2018, Abbott retired along with his pension. No action could be taken. Langeman was not so lucky. He got fired two weeks ago, likely in anticipation of the Senate hearing. What motivation could Langeman have had to lie and cover up, along with Abbott, as reported? Could he have been an Abbott protégé anticipating a cushy post-retirement gig on the beachhead?

The inspector general made two criminal referrals to the Justice Department for the prosecution of Abbott and Langeman. The department declined. Assuming the referrals went to Main Justice’s Public Integrity Section (PIS), that’s like sticking them down a knothole; PIS is the most risk-averse office in the entire department.

There is a ray of hope, though slender, for further accountability.

For starters, there should be a review of Abbott’s and Langeman’s prior cases to see if the same deception and dishonesty the IG reported they brought to the Nassar case came to bear on any others. Senators should request that the IG conduct the review.

In addition, senators should use their bully pulpit by pressing Attorney General Merrick Garland to reconsider the declinations. When IGs refer cases to DOJ, it’s usually for serious criminal activity. But referrals are sometimes made to inoculate the IG from hearings such as last week’s, in which the IG can say to angry senators “It’s not on us. We referred the case to DOJ, but they declined.” DOJ is mindful of this practice, but in this case, the IG referrals appear to be righteous.

Senators have enough arrows in their quiver to make an appeal to the AG to reconsider. It should start with the moral outrage over Nassar’s activities. Then the outrage over the reported lies and deceit from Abbott and Langeman, which led to scores of additional girls being abused.

Rarely these days is there such bipartisan unanimity in Congress on a moral cause.

Three powerful Senate Committees — Judiciary, Commerce and Appropriations — have voiced support for the victims and have called for accountability. Surely, they can flex their muscles a bit more on behalf of truly deserving victims.     

Garland is Mister I-go-strictly-by-the-book-to-protect-my-career-prosecutors. The Senate needs to convince him this is a moral exception.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.

Tags Accountability Child sexual abuse in the United States Chuck Grassley cover-up of sexual abuse FBI FBI investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation Larry Nassar Merrick Garland Nassar victims Office of Inspector General Simone Biles USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal

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