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Watchdog: FBI Failed To Properly Respond To Gymnasts' Sex Abuse Allegations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We take a second look this morning at a seemingly old news story. In 2018, a judge sentenced Larry Nassar to prison. At that sentencing for the former Team USA gymnastics doctor, more than 150 women told stories of how he abused them; some had been girls at the time. Which raises a question - how did it take so many years to catch Nassar that he had time for more than 150 victims? The FBI inspector general now offers one part of the answer. The investigation says the FBI repeatedly failed to act and that one former FBI official may have lied to cover up that inaction.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is on the story. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How much did the FBI know and how early?

JOHNSON: The answer to that question is devastating. You just said that a parade of Nassar's survivors gave emotional testimony about him in 2018. But we now know the leader of USA Gymnastics first approached the FBI in 2015 about concerns that Larry Nassar was engaging in sexual abuse of young gymnasts. But the FBI in Indianapolis did very little according to this new inspector general report. Back in 2015, they interviewed one victim only by phone. The FBI failed to contact two other victims. And after that, the watchdog report says the bureau did nothing - virtually nothing for eight months. The FBI in Indiana had concluded there was virtually no jurisdiction for them, but they didn't pass along that information they had about Nassar to other FBI offices or to state and local authorities. Ultimately, state authorities in Michigan were the ones who pursued him.

INSKEEP: Well, who was in charge during this period when Nassar was going on to abuse more people?

JOHNSON: One guy was in charge and is named in the report - the only person named in the report. That's Jay Abbott. He was running the Indianapolis field office for the bureau at the time. The inspector general says Abbott made false statements about what he did and didn't do. He misled reporters who started to ask questions. He influenced what others in the FBI said about the investigation. But the watchdog report also cites some misstatements by another supervisory agent in Indiana who apparently lied in paperwork about the investigation as well.

INSKEEP: Is there any evidence suggesting why an FBI supervisor might not have been so quick to act on these allegations?

JOHNSON: There's some very troubling information in this watchdog report that says Abbott, who was in charge of the Indianapolis office of the bureau at the time, was also in talks for a big job with the U.S. Olympic Committee as chief security officer. After his Indiana office decided to take no action but while this Nassar investigation was still live within the FBI, he met with the gymnastics CEO for beers. They discussed public relations strategy about this investigation.

INSKEEP: Wow.

JOHNSON: And then once investigators showed up at his doorstep, Abbott allegedly lied to watchdogs about applying for that job. But the Justice Department has declined to prosecute him despite all these findings. He retired from the bureau in 2018, and a lawyer for Abbott says Abbott hopes the courageous victims of Nassar's crimes find peace.

INSKEEP: So now that this information is public about what seems like a conflict of interest and about inaction by the FBI, what happens? Who is held accountable here?

JOHNSON: Well, the FBI is making changes to how it documents and reviews cases of child sex abuse. They're making some procedural changes to ensure these complaints are handled expediently. And members of Congress, Steve, are furious. A pair of senators, one Democrat and one Republican, are calling on the FBI director and the attorney general to testify. The FBI says the actions identified by the watchdog here are inexcusable and a discredit to the organization. The bureau says people who engaged in wrongdoing are no longer supervising others and no longer working on FBI matters during this period of internal investigation.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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