The leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee and other sports are answering questions on Capitol Hill on how they plan to protect athletes from sexual abuse. (May 23)
Former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny declined to answer questions about his or the organization’s handling of the Larry Nassar scandal during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Testifying before the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, Penny declined to give a statement and invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions so as not to incriminate himself.
After Penny declined to answer around five questions, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the chair of the committee, asked Penny if he would decline to answer all questions. Penny said yes, and Moran excused him from the hearing.
The Senate Commerce Committee subpoenaed Penny, who was making his first public appearance since he resigned under pressure from the U.S. Olympic Committee in March 2017. Senate officials had hoped to learn more of USA Gymnastics’ and Michigan State’s handling of the Nassar case.
Penny is named as a defendant in federal lawsuits filed by Olympic champions Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman, as well as in California state court by former gymnasts Mattie Larson and Jeanette Antolin.
In a statement released after Penny was excused from the hearing, his attorney, Robert J. Bittman, said Penny “declined to testify before the subcommittee while the matters that attempt to wrongly shift blame for Nassar’s crimes remain open.”
The subcommittee previously planned to hold a hearing on May 22 but postponed it after some who were invited did not agree to testify, a person with knowledge of the situation but who was not authorized to speak publicly told USA TODAY Sports.
Former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon, who was also served a subpoena, noted to the committee that she had been willing to testify on that date but that Tuesday’s date presented a conflict for her and her attorney.
Former USA Gymnastics women’s program director Rhonda Faehn also appeared before the committee. Former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun, who is being treated for prostate cancer, and former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi cited medical reasons for why they could not appear before the committee. Both provided written statements.
Penny was excused shortly into the question-and-answer portion of the 2.5-hour hearing.
He did not answer questions from Moran or Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who asked whether Penny had a greater responsibility to Nassar’s victims to do so.
“I respect your right to invoke your Fifth Amendment privilege. You have that right,” Blumenthal said. “But you also have a responsibility. You were part of an organization that in effect prioritize medals and money over the young women and girls, some of them here today, who were sexually abused by Mr. Nassar. And in fact, in the absence of your testimony, documents will speak for you.”
Blumenthal cited two documents in his questioning of Penny. He noted a 2013 memo from Penny to Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance, in which Penny wrote that “If Larry Nassar is the gatekeeper, then we have a real issue.”
He also asked about a July 9, 2014 email from USA Gymnastics’ chief operating officer, to Nassar referring to a code of silence.
Penny declined to answer questions about either document.
Faehn’s written testimony included emails from the summer of 2015 when USA Gymnastics learned of athlete concerns about Nassar’s treatment.
Sarah Jantzi, the personal coach for Maggie Nichols, first spoke with Faehn about those concerns on June 17, 2015. Faehn relayed that information to Penny.
In a statement included in Faehn’s testimony, Jantzi said she spoke with Penny that day and asked if she needed to report the concerns to authorities.
“He reassured me that no he would handle it,” Jantzi wrote. “This was already being investigated and he would take it from here.”
Although USA Gymnastics maintained for months that it it “immediately” reported the concerns about Nassar to the FBI, it revealed in February 2017 that it waited more than five weeks while it hired a private consultant to conduct an investigation.
USA Gymnastics told the FBI about Nassar in late July 2015. The organization did not notify Michigan State, where Nassar was a physician, nor make public the reason for his departure. USA Gymnastics said it was instructed not to by the FBI.
But on July 21 – nearly a week before USA Gymnastics reported to the FBI – Penny emailed eight members of the board or executive staff instructing them “not to have any conversations with anyone concerning this issue until further notice.”
Blumenthal noted that USA Gymnastics spoke to Nassar about the investigation on July 22 of that year. It contacted the FBI on July 27.
The FBI waited approximately nine months to launch an investigation after receiving the complaint, the Wall Street Journal first reported.
Concerns about the slow pace of the investigation led Penny and Paul Parilla, then the chairman of USA Gymnastics’ board, to contact FBI officials in Los Angeles in May 2016, the New York Times reported.
Last month, FBI director Christopher Wray told a Senate subcommittee that the agency is conducting a review of its response to allegations made in 2015 and 2016.
The Senate’s investigation is one of several that come as the Nassar scandal has engulfed USA Gymnastics and Michigan State for nearly two years.
The Indianapolis Star, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, first made public the allegations against Nassar in August 2016 after being contacted by Rachael Denhollander, who said she’d been abused by Nassar.
Olympic champions Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney Raisman and Wieber are among more than 300 women and girls who have said Nassar abused them under the guise of medical treatment.
Nassar, 54, is serving a 60-year federal sentence for child pornography charges. He was convicted of 10 counts of sexual assault in Michigan and faces a minimum of 40 years in prison after his federal sentence is over.
Simon resigned in January hours after Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in Ingham County, Mich. During that sentencing hearing, 156 women and girls who said Nassar assaulted them gave victim impact statements.
According to the Lansing State Journal, which is part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, seven women or girls have said told coaches, trainers, police or Michigan State officials of concerns about Nassar between 1997 and 2015.
Michigan State last month agreed to a $500 million settlement with approximately 300 victims. USA Gymnastics has acknowledged it is in mediation with victims suing the organization.
Faehn said it was after one of those mediation sessions, and during a national team training camp, that she was ousted by new USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry last month. In her opening statement, Faehn said she had “received no warning and no explanation for my firing.”
Faehn has faced criticism from survivors for not reporting the concerns relayed to her to law enforcement, as would be required under Indiana law.
Asked about that during the hearing, Faehn said, “It’s my belief that under the Indiana law, it was my duty to report to my superior.”
She continued, “I was under the belief that my superior was reporting it to the authorities.”
Faehn said she has not been interviewed by the FBI and had not been interviewed by law enforcement until roughly a month ago, when she spoke with the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers are investigating abuse at the Karolyi ranch.
“This is actually something that I had wanted and agreed with that there should be a thorough investigation. I was beyond stunned that I was never interviewed and questioned by anyone,” Faehn said.
“I think there still absolutely has to be people questioned as to what involvement they did have and whether there needs to be additional changes.”
The USOC announced in early February that it hired Boston-based law firm Ropes & Gray to investigate the USOC and USA Gymnastics handling of the Nassar case.
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Rachel Axon discusses Senate subcommittee hearing where former athletes criticized the national governing bodies for their sport as well as the USOC and others for failing to prevent and stop sexual abuse.
USA TODAY Sports