THE BIG PICTURE: Raisman, Biles rip FBI, USA Gymnastics, USOPC, Center for SafeSport in Senate hearing, ask for more investigations and prosecutions

Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman testifying at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, 15 September (Photo: C-SPAN video screenshot)

“I ask that you please do all that is in your power to ensure that these individuals are held responsible, and accountable for ignoring my initial report, for lying about my initial report, and for covering up for a child molester, and for endangering others.”

That was 2012 Olympic Team gold medalist McKayla Maroney, now 25, expressing the core proposal of four survivors of serial sex abuser Larry Nassar at Wednesday’s four-hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C.

Maroney, three-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, four-time Olympic winner Simone Biles and 2015 World Team gold medalist Maggie Nichols testified in the first half of the session, devoted to the experience of these survivors.

The hearing followed the devastating July report of the Department of Justice’s Inspector General about the disastrous mis-handling of the Nassar investigation by the FBI in 2015 and 2016 and was designed to explore possible follow-up actions by the Congress.

In the survivor’s session, Raisman’s answer to questions from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) highlighted their concerns:

“I think it’s really important to look at the connection between the FBI, USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and we cannot believe there is a safer future for children unless we fully understand every single thing that happened.

“And USA Gymnastics does say that they have done investigations, but those were not completely independent, and the scope of the investigation matters. Nobody should be off-limits. Nothing should be off-limits. It should go back decades and that has not been done.

“It’s been something that we’ve been asking for for years and years and I personally would like to see all three organizations completely investigated, and the scope of it matters, because until we know all the facts, it’s just guesswork. And I hope you guys feel the same way as I do that, if we’re thinking about children going into gymnastics or sports, I don’t want to be guessing that they’re going to be OK, I want to know with 100% certainty that somebody that looked the other way for us isn’t still in a position of power.

“And so I think the investigation is crucial and until that, I don’t have any faith that things will get better in the sport.”

Grassley followed up, asking about confidence in the Congressionally-formed U.S. Center for SafeSport. Raisman was forthright:

“I personally think SafeSport is – I’m trying to be respectful here – I don’t like SafeSport, I hear from many survivors that they report their abuse and it’s like playing ‘hot potato,’ where someone else kicks it over to somebody else and don’t hear back for a really long time.

“I think a really big issue is that SafeSport is funded by USA Gymnastics or the United States Olympic Committee; I’m not sure exactly the correct terminology is. If you’re SafeSport and you were funded by the organization you’re investigating, they’re likely not going to do the right thing.

“And so I think that it needs to be completely separate, and I personally think SafeSport needs a lot of work.”

The irony of Raisman’s comments is that the Congress, in the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020, punitively required the USOPC to fund SafeSport to the tune of $20 million per year!

Maroney followed up:

“Nobody really wants to be held accountable and nobody really knows who to hold accountable. So I think, in order to help, there needs to be a specific person who is in charge of protecting these athletes, and it falls on them when they’re not, instead of it being passed around and everyone just being like, ‘well, we don’t know what happened’, um, ‘who’s job was that?’ There needs to be a specific job for that.”

But in response to a question from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) about what organization or person could be trusted, none of the four offered a reply.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) asked “What does genuine accountability look like to you? When do you feel justice will be done for the injustices you suffered?”

Raisman spoke, doubling down on want to know more details than already available:

“A complete and full independent investigation of the FBI, USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and then from there, then we will know the answers of who should be held accountable.

“I also think that there needs to be, when we think about a new USA Gymnastics or a new United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, survivors need to be in the room … they need to feel, we need to feel like we are not adversaries to USA Gymnastics.”

Biles chimed in as well, adding:

“One more to add, we also want to see them at least be federally prosecuted to the fullest extent, because they need to be held accountable.”

During the second session, FBI Director Christopher Wray’s opening remarks included:

“I’m sorry that so many people let you [survivors] down, over and over again, and I’m especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015, and failed, and that is inexcusable, it never should have happened and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure it never happens again. …

“The action and inaction of the FBI employees detailed in this report are totally unacceptable. These individuals betrayed the core duty that they have of protecting people. They failed to protect young women and girls from abuse and the work we do certainly is often complicated and uncertain and we’re never going to be perfect, but the kinds of fundamental errors that were made in this case in 2015 and ‘16 should never have happened, period. And as long as I am FBI director, I’m committed to doing everything in my power to make sure they never happen again.

“The FBI cannot carry out its vital mission of protecting the American people without trust. And in this case, FBI agents – certain FBI agents – broke that trust repeatedly and inexcusably. And to pretend otherwise would be yet one more insult to the survivors.”

The questioning of Wray and Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz repeatedly came back to whether a referral on criminal charges had been made, particularly on two Indianapolis agents mentioned prominently in the report, former Special Agent in Charge Jay Abbott and Supervisory Special Agent Michael Langeman.

Horowitz said referrals had been made to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute either. Abbott has retired and Langeman was fired from the FBI within the past two weeks, according to Wray. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco was requested to appear, but declined and the department’s policy is apparently not to disclose why specific prosecutions are undertaken or not. Said Leahy to Wray and Horowitz: “There’s a whole lot of people who should be in prison.”

There was also substantial discussion about former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny and his interactions with Abbott, including the mention of a possible head-of-security job opening at the (then) USOC, which Abbott did apply for in 2017 (but was not selected).

Discussions about legislative fixes were discussed, principally about the inability to discipline or prosecute FBI personnel who are retired or otherwise have left the Bureau.

Analysis: The testimony of the four survivors was emotional, difficult and, in many moments, tense.

Lining up behind Raisman, however, they made it clear that even with many changes of personnel and procedures, they have no faith in USA Gymnastics or the USOPC as currently constituted. Raisman spoke specifically of “when we think about a new USA Gymnastics or a new United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee …” This will be especially interesting for the Congress in light of:

(1) Its forthcoming power – in October – to vaporize USA Gymnastics as the National Governing Body for the sport in the U.S. and to remove the entire Board of Directors of the USOPC (with either action opening the USOPC to possible suspension by the International Olympic Committee), and

(2) The coming-into-formation Commission on the State of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympics, also expected to begin its work of review and recommendations in October, but which thus far has no funding from the Congress.

Moreover, Raisman’s slam of the U.S. Center for Safeport, created by the Congress in 2017 raises all new questions about that body, which the Judiciary Committee will now have to follow up.

As for the survivor’s incessant demands for another investigation into what happened, moment-by-moment, that’s going to be hard to fulfill. To the extent that ex-FBI agents Abbott and Langeman, former USA Gymnastics chief Penny and a long list of others could be subject to criminal charges, they are not obligated to cooperate with any probe. In fact, Penny invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in a June 2018 Senate Subcommittee hearing.

It is also up for question as to what another inquiry would find beyond the 233-page report by Ropes & Gray in 2018 and the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s report delivered in July.

This is not over, but it will be interesting to see what Congressional pressure – and funding – there will be for Justice Department prosecutions, for some kind of revision (replacement?) of the U.S. Center for SafeSport and some sort of additional inquiry that would satisfy the survivors.

By the way, the controversial Beijing 2022 Winter Games open in 141 days.

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