Nassar survivors file legal claims against FBI for mishandling of case, seek $130 million
It’s been nearly a year since Grace French has been able to read in excruciating, 109-page detail how the FBI could have stopped disgraced former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar from abusing her and dozens of others.
Last summer, the Department of Justice released a scathing report on how the FBI mishandled complaints about Nassar in 2015, allowing him to continue working as a respected sports doctor in Michigan for more than a year until his eventual arrest in 2016. According to civil suits, some 70 women and girls were abused by Nassar in the intervening months. The FBI left these victims, French believes, in the “hands of a predator.”
Now, she and 12 others are filing legal claims against the FBI for alleged gross negligence and other failures, each seeking $10 million in compensation.
“What's so important for me is that there's accountability to the highest level, for the systemic failures that happened in this case,” French said Thursday. “Because I want people to be able to trust that they will be safe. And that when they report their own abuse or their sexual assault, that they will be listened to, and that they will be believed, and that people will take them seriously and take the action needed in order to continue to keep them safe.”
In 2015, USAG goes to the FBI in Indianapolis
In July 2015, then-USA Gymnastics President and CEO Steve Penny told the FBI Indianapolis field office that USAG had received multiple complaints of sexual misconduct against Nassar. “Penny described graphic information that three gymnasts — all of whom were minors at the time of the alleged assaults — had provided to USA Gymnastics,” the DOJ report said. “Penny further informed the FBI that the three athletes were available to be interviewed.”
But the Indianapolis agents spoke over the phone with only one of the three athletes, and decided that they didn’t have jurisdiction for further investigation because none of the allegations happened locally. They told USAG that they had transferred the case to the field office in Michigan, but there’s no evidence that actually happened. Nor did they alert local law enforcement in the Lansing area, where Nassar continued to treat athletes and patients at Michigan State University, a local high school, and a prestigious private gym. The USAG allowed Nassar to publicly “retire” from his role as the Olympic team doctor, without making any public statement about the multiple complaints they had received.
Soon after Penny first spoke with the FBI, one of the Indianapolis field office agents, special agent in charge Jay Abbott, met privately with Penny in a bar to discuss a possible security job with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Abbott and Penny would go on to exchange repeated text messages about the Nassar case and the USOC job, and eventually Abbott submitted an application for the post in 2017 (he didn’t even get an interview).
In 2016, USAG tries again, goes to FBI in Los Angeles
Because the USAG believed the field office in Indianapolis had forwarded the case to FBI agents in Michigan, they waited for some kind of update from Michigan. After seven months of silence, Penny went to the FBI’s LA field office in May 2016, as ne of the gymnasts was from Southern California. The LA office opened a full investigation and interviewed 13 witnesses, including six victims, and reached out to the Indianapolis field office.
But while the LA office “appreciated the utmost seriousness of the Nassar allegations and took numerous investigative steps,” the Office of the Inspector General found that they didn’t “expeditiously notify” law enforcement in Texas or Michigan about the “ongoing danger that Nassar posed.”
In fact, it was the Michigan State University Police Department that first brought the allegations against Nassar to the attention of the FBI Lansing Resident Agency. The MSU PD arrested Nassar in September 2016, just a month after receiving a complaint from Rachael Denhollander about Nassar assaulting her when she was 16.
The federal report about the FBI’s handling of the case said the failures “contributed to a delay of over a year” in bringing Nassar to justice, and that Abbott “made materially false statements” afterwards in an attempt to downplay those failings.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter in 2021, FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly addressed Nassar’s victims.
“I’m sorry that so many different people let you 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 but failed. And that is inexcusable. It never should have happened,” Wray said, according to legal filings submitted this week.
Attorneys for the 13 victims say legally, you can’t just sue the FBI: you have to go through an administrative process first that gives the federal government a chance to settle claims outside of court. According to the Federal Tort Claims Act, people “who are injured [...] by the wrongful or negligent act of a federal employee acting in the scope of his or her official duties may file a claim with the government for reimbursement” for that injury.
The agency has six months to respond to these filings, said claimants’ attorney James White. If the claim isn’t settled within that time frame, then the claimants can go to court.
Reached for comment, an FBI spokesperson said they don't have a comment, instead referring reporters back to Wray's remarks before the Senate.
For French, going through yet another legal process, six years after Nassar was arrested, is draining.
“It’s definitely retraumatizing,” she said. “Leading up to today, it’s been a struggle, I won’t sugarcoat it.”
It’s yet another press conference, more lawyers, another news cycle where Nassar’s face is all over the internet. French, who founded the Army of Survivors nonprofit group, said she just wants to get back to her marketing job and then leave town for the weekend with her fiancé. They’re going to camp somewhere where there’s no cell service.
But first, she has to talk to reporters about this filing.
“We had so many people not speak up for us,” she said. “So if I can now be that person that's speaking up, being a face and going after accountability for these survivors, I'm going to do it. Because that's what we needed so long ago.”