USA Gymnastics sought FBI's help to protect image

Steve Penny, the former president of USA Gymnastics, was arrested on Wednesday on allegations of tampering with evidence during the investigation of sex crimes committed by team doctor Larry Nassar.
Steve Penny, the former president of USA Gymnastics, was arrested on Wednesday on allegations of tampering with evidence during the investigation of sex crimes committed by team doctor Larry Nassar.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • The former president of USA Gymnastics had reportedly discussed the possibility of a top security job at the US Olympic Committee with an FBI agent investigating the national team doctor on allegations of sexual abuse.

Steve Penny, who stepped down in March last year and was arrested on Wednesday for tampering with evidence in the probe, had also worried about the organisation's image and sought to cultivate a close relationship with federal investigators.

He went as far as to ask for their recommendations on the wording of public statements about the investigation, according to e-mail reviewed by The New York Times.

In one e-mail to an FBI employee, he wrote: "We need some cover."

Yet he went further in his contacts with Jay Abbott, the special agent in charge of the FBI's field office in Indianapolis, which was in charge of the inquiry into Larry Nassar. The doctor, who abused scores of gymnasts during his tenure, is now in prison.

Penny's lawyer, Edith Matthai, in response to questions about whether Abbott had been offered a job during the investigation, confirmed that the USOC position had been discussed but insisted there was no conflict of interest.

"Mr Penny told Mr Abbott that the head of security of the USOC would be retiring and that Mr Abbott might be interested in that position after he retired from the FBI," Matthai said in a statement.

She said Penny believed the case had been transferred out of Abbott's hands to another office.

"There was no promise of a job nor did Mr Penny have the ability to hire Mr Abbott for that position," she added.

The Justice Department has been investigating the FBI's handling of the Nassar case, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity.

The FBI declined to comment for this article, and Abbott did not return a phone call or respond to two text messages seeking comment.

In July last year, the USOC hired Nicole Deal as its head of security.

Yet the discussion about the job points to the aggressive efforts Penny made to develop close relations with investigators and preserve the image of an organisation as it drowned in scandal.

In an e-mail to Abbott on July 30, 2015, he wrote about "a very squirmy Nassar", saying, "Our biggest concern is how we contain him from sending shock waves through the community".

On Wednesday, he was arrested on allegations of tampering with evidence in a probe of Nassar's sex crimes, charged with having documents removed from a national team training centre in Texas, where there were reports of abuse.

During his 12 years in charge, Penny was known for his marketing skills and micromanagement, especially when it came to USA Gymnastics' public image.

According to Texas law enforcement officials and several accounts by former USA Gymnastics officials, he tried to manage the case from the beginning.

They said that upon hearing that Nassar was being investigated, he ordered the removal of Nassar-related documents from the training centre, called the Karolyi ranch.

In e-mail messages reviewed by the paper, Penny also expressed his hope that law enforcement officials could protect his organisation from negative publicity.

On Feb 1 last year, he wrote to Laura Eimiller, an FBI public affairs officer in Los Angeles, seeking the bureau's help.

In the e-mail, he noted that he had talked to Abbott and appeared to be in the thick of trying to handle the fallout from the case. "I am at home," he wrote. "Spoke with Jay Abbott. We need some cover. Call at your convenience."

Matthai said he had made the request because of claims that USA Gymnastics had not reported the allegations to the FBI. She said Penny and the organisation had already done it in July 2015, "had responded to all of the FBI's requests for assistance, had been told by the FBI that all the necessary interviews had been completed".

While Penny did indeed report Nassar, he did so five weeks after first learning of the allegations. John Manly, a lawyer for many of the victims in the case, said more than 50 girls had been abused by Nassar during that time.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2018, with the headline 'USA Gymnastics sought FBI's help to protect image'. Print Edition | Subscribe