Former USA Gymnastics president had ‘troubling’ contact with FBI during Larry Nassar investigation

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Former USA Gymnastics President and CEO Steve Penny, shown here testifying before a Senate subcommittee in June, is facing an evidence-tampering charge in Texas. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Steve Penny, the former president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, discussed a U.S. Olympic Committee job opening with the head of the FBI’s Indianapolis field office while that office was investigating Larry Nassar in 2015, contact that has been dubbed “troubling” by a prosecutor in Texas who charged Penny with felony evidence tampering in a separate investigation related to Nassar.

As reported Thursday by the Indianapolis Star and New York Times, Penny told Special Agent in Charge W. “Jay” Abbott in 2015 that the head of security for the U.S. Olympic Committee would be retiring and suggested Abbott might be interested in the position. Penny also sought the FBI’s assistance in crafting news releases about the investigation into Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who has been found to have sexually abused hundreds of girls and women.

Penny’s attorney, Edith Matthai, confirmed to the Star and the Times that Penny had discussed the potential USOC job opening with Abbott in 2015 but said there was no quid pro quo involved.

“Any suggestion that Steve had the conversation with Abbott in order to impact the FBI investigation is false and defamatory,” she told the Star, adding that Penny at the time thought the investigation had been transferred from the FBI’s Indianapolis office to one in Detroit and that other people apart from Penny had discussed the USOC job with Abbott.

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“There was no promise of a job nor did Mr. Penny have the ability to hire Mr. Abbott for that position,” she said. “There was no conflict of interest.”

The USOC hired Nicole Deal to replace Larry Buendorf as its chief security officer in July 2017. Abbott retired from the FBI in January. The FBI’s handling of the Nassar allegations is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, both the Star and the Times reported.

On Sept. 28, a grand jury in Walker County, Tex., indicted Penny on a felony evidence-tampering charge, with prosecutors alleging that Penny ordered the removal of documents relating to Nassar’s treatment of gymnasts from the Karolyi Ranch, the Texas facility where America’s top female gymnasts trained until earlier this year and where Nassar is alleged to have abused victims. On Wednesday, U.S. marshals took Penny into custody in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where Matthai said Penny was vacationing with his wife and daughters. She said Penny was unaware he was facing the charge in Texas.

David Weeks, the Walker County district attorney whose office is prosecuting Penny, told the Star that he found the allegations of Penny’s contact with the FBI “troubling” and said it “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

“At the very least it’s bad optics,” he told the Star. “I’d be concerned about it, and I’d want to know more.”

Prosecutors say Penny had the documents removed from Karolyi Ranch and sent to him at USA Gymnastics headquarters in Indianapolis. The documents have not been found.

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“The removal of the documents was done for the purpose of impairing the ongoing investigation by destroying or hiding the documents,” Weeks said in a statement. “The Texas Rangers and the detectives believe that those records … would have helped in their investigation of Nassar as well as assisted with the investigation of other offenses that may have occurred at the Karolyi Ranch.”

More than 500 girls and women say Nassar abused them. He almost certainly will spend the rest of his life in prison after reaching a plea deal with Michigan prosecutors on seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving more than 160 girls and women over more than two decades. Nassar also was sentenced to 60 years in prison in a separate federal child pornography case.

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