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Watchdog report blasts FBI for 'fundamental errors' in Larry Nassar sex abuse investigation

The report places much of the blame on a now-retired FBI agent who sought a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Dr. Larry Nassar Faces Sentencing At Second Sexual Abuse Trial
Larry Nassar listens to statements before being sentenced on three counts of criminal sexual assault in Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Mich., on Feb. 5, 2018. Scott Olson / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The top watchdog at the Justice Department said in a 119-page report released Wednesday that the FBI failed to interview in a timely manner victims who alleged that U.S. gymnastic team doctor Larry Nassar had molested them.

The FBI's Indianapolis field office made "fundamental errors," Inspector General Michael Horowitz said, by failing to notify other FBI offices or state or local authorities.

When the FBI's handling of the case came under scrutiny, "Indianapolis Field Office officials did not take responsibility for their failures," the report said. "Instead, they provided incomplete and inaccurate information to make it appear that they had been diligent in responding to the sexual abuse allegations."

When agents in Los Angeles received another complaint eight months later, their office took several investigative steps but failed to tell other offices what it was up to.

The report places much of the blame on a now-retired FBI agent who sought a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The inspector general's report said Jay Abbott, the special agent in charge of the Indianapolis field office, instructed the FBI to release a false statement to reporters in early 2017 saying his office had "expeditiously responded" to the allegations about Nassar. The reporters had questioned why the FBI failed to act from July 2015, when USA Gymnastics first brought the allegations to the attention of Abbott's office, to September 2016, when Michigan State University police searched Nassar's home.

USA Gymnastics, the governing body of the U.S. national team, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Abbott, who has retired from the FBI, failed to mention to the media that his office spoke to only one of the three victims who had come forward and were willing to talk to investigators.

"From July 2015, when the allegations were first reported to the FBI, to September 2016, Nassar continued to treat gymnasts at Michigan State University, a high school in Michigan, and a gymnastics club in Michigan," the report said. "Ultimately the investigations determined that Nassar had engaged in sexual assaults of over 100 victims and possessed thousands of images of child pornography, led to his convictions in federal and state court, and resulted in Nassar being sentenced to incarceration for over 100 years."

During the fall of 2015, after Abbott's office had referred the investigation to an FBI field office in Michigan, Abbott approached the USA Gymnastics official who had brought the allegations to his attention, Steve Penny, about a potential job opportunity with the U.S. Olympic Committee, the report said.

Abbott went on to apply for a job in 2017 but was denied.

The inspector general's report also said that Penny raised concerns with Abbott about how the FBI's investigation might look for USA Gymnastics and that Abbott reassured Penny that his statements would put the organization in a positive light.

"At the same time, Abbott was aware that Penny appeared willing to put in a good word on Abbott's behalf," the report said.

The report said that Abbott violated the FBI's conflict of interest policy and that his office made false statements during two interviews with the inspector general by claiming it communicated with FBI agents in Detroit and Los Angeles about the allegations.

However, on May 14, the inspector general learned from the Justice Department that it would not be opening a new investigation into whether the Indianapolis field office knowingly made false statements to the inspector general.

"The Office of Inspector General found that senior officials in the FBI Indianapolis Field Office failed to respond to the Lawrence Gerard Nassar allegations with the utmost seriousness and urgency that the allegations deserved and required, made numerous and fundamental errors when they did respond to them, and failed to notify state or local authorities of the allegations or take other steps to mitigate the ongoing threat posed by Nassar," the report concluded.

Abbott could not immediately be reached for comment. In February 2018, he told The New York Times, "There is a duty to warn those who might be harmed in the future." He also said: "But everyone is still trying to ascertain whether a crime has been committed. And everybody has rights here," meaning the accused as well as his accusers.

In a statement, the FBI said: "As the Inspector General made clear in today's report, this should not have happened. 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 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."

John Manly, an attorney for more than 150 victims, said the report "shocks the conscience."

"All my clients wanted when speaking up about Larry Nassar was to protect other children and have Nassar held accountable," Manly said. "Unfortunately, it appears to this office that the Indianapolis FBI office including the Special Agent In Charge intentionally killed the Nassar investigation with USA Gymnastics, acting as a full partner in its deception and conspiracy in September of 2015."

Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called for congressional hearings and questioned why the Justice Department has not pursued criminal charges against the agents.

"This report is absolutely chilling — truly a gut punch to anyone who cares about effective law enforcement," Blumenthal said in a call with reporters. "My mind is boggled by the numbers of innocent victims who might've been saved the heartbreak and tragedy if the FBI had acted promptly and responsibly here."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the report made it clear that there were "catastrophic failures at multiple levels of law enforcement."

"This dereliction of duty is reprehensible, and those responsible must be held accountable," Cornyn said in a statement.

Many of Nassar's victims say representatives of USA Gymnastics and others instructed them that they must not come forward publicly while the FBI was conducting its investigation.

In the meantime, the report noted, Nassar continued to abuse young athletes in Michigan in the year and a half before he was arrested by local authorities — not by the FBI.

In 2018, Nassar pleaded guilty to abusing 10 of the more than 265 patients who came forward to say they had been molested. He is serving up to 175 years in prison.

When the FBI's Indianapolis field office was finally made aware of the allegations in 2015, the gymnasts and their families expected to be called in right away. But instead, they told NBC News, they were met with months of delays, all while being instructed by USA Gymnastics to keep the matter private.

Lisa Cavazuti contributed.