Discovery of Missing Documents Spurred U.S.O.C. to Act Against Gymnastics Federation
A trove of documents central to a sexual abuse investigation and long sought by investigators in Texas were found by U.S.A. Gymnastics officials at their headquarters in Indianapolis, pushing the United States Olympic Committee this week to avert the possibility of another scandal and move to take over the sports federation.
The belated discovery of the documents, and questions about who handled them or knew about them, led the United States Olympic Committee to move on Monday to seize control of U.S.A. Gymnastics, according to the Olympic committee, which had also grown increasingly alarmed by turmoil in the management of the federation.
Although it is not clear whether the discovery of the documents points to somebody trying to hide them, Olympic committee officials said they decided they could not abide that possibility leading to more turbulence in a popular and successful sport consisting of thousands of athletes, including Olympians, looking for new direction.
The investigators consider the documents central to an investigation into the gymnastics national team doctor Lawrence G. Nassar and his sexual abuse of gymnasts at the now-shuttered women’s gymnastics training center in southeast Texas.
Several former gymnasts have said Nassar sexually assaulted them at the training center under the guise of performing medical procedures. Nassar is serving effectively a life sentence in prison for multiple counts of criminal sexual misconduct and child pornography.
Law enforcement officials in Walker County, Tex., the site of the training center, which is known as the Karolyi ranch, after Bela and Martha Karolyi, the coaches who own the property, said last month that they had not been able to find the documents they believed should have been there.
As of Thursday morning, the documents remained at the U.S.A. Gymnastics office. David P. Weeks, district attorney for Walker County, said on Thursday that U.S.A. Gymnastics would be served a subpoena later in the day.
Steve Penny, who was chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics when dozens of athletes and former athletes began going public with accusations that Nassar had sexually abused them, had ordered the removal of those documents from the ranch two years ago after Texas Rangers investigating Nassar were denied access to the property. At the time, the Rangers did not have a warrant, and U.S.A. Gymnastics said in a statement on Wednesday that it was never served a subpoena or a warrant for the documents.
Federation officials said they asked prosecutors on Saturday to formally ask for the documents, asserting they could not simply turn them over because those documents contain “personally identifying information.”
Walker County prosecutors said they never served U.S.A. Gymnastics with a subpoena because they were under the impression that the organization didn’t have the documents.
“Our investigators were told by everyone that Steve Penny was in possession of the documents, and Kerry Perry even testified to Congress that U.S.A. Gymnastics didn’t have the records,” Stephanie Stroud, the first assistant district attorney in Walker County, said. “So it’s kind of interesting that the documents just showed up.”
A grand jury in Walker County indicted Penny on Sept. 28 on allegations that he knowingly concealed or destroyed the documents. Last month, he was arrested on a felony charge of evidence tampering and has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Penny’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, said this week that Penny, who resigned from U.S.A. Gymnastics under pressure in 2017, never had possession of the documents and did not know where they might have ended up. By Penny’s account, he said, the last he knew was that an employee of the organization had shipped them to the federation’s Indianapolis headquarters. Hardin called the situation “a colossal misunderstanding” that prosecutors assumed Penny ever had the documents, much less doctored or destroyed them.
Hardin insisted Thursday that his client had nothing to do with the documents going missing — because, he said, they apparently never went missing.
“The documents haven’t just showed up, nobody has officially ever asked for them,” he said. “I know at the end of the day that it’s going to be determined that Steve had nothing to do with these documents after he had them removed from the ranch on the advice of counsel.”
Weeks, the criminal district attorney, said that Penny didn’t cooperate with investigators who initially were looking for the documents. He said he would not know how the latest revelation would affect Penny’s criminal case until he sees the documents himself.
“We’ve got to find out where the documents have been, who had them and how they ended up where they did just now,” Weeks said. “There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered, but let me just tell you that we were surprised when we got the letter from U.S.A. Gymnastics.”
It is unclear who at U.S.A. Gymnastics headquarters might have known the whereabouts of the documents, or for how long, or who reported their whereabouts to the Olympic committee.
According to the gymnastics federation’s statement on Wednesday, someone at the organization read news reports late last month that prosecutors in Texas were still looking for documents with Nassar’s name on them and realized that U.S.A. Gymnastics might have that paperwork.
Late last week, U.S.A. Gymnastics reached out to top executives at the U.S.O.C. to tell them they had located a cache of documents that could be from the Karolyi ranch. Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the Olympic committee, said his organization instructed U.S.A. Gymnastics officials to alert the authorities immediately.
On Saturday, according to its statement, U.S.A. Gymnastics sent a letter to the Walker County district attorney’s office, notifying prosecutors that it possessed documents “that may have come from the ranch that may be applicable to the investigation, though none of these documents contain Nassar’s name.”
Leslie King, the organization’s spokeswoman, said she did not know who initially realized that the documents being sought were at its headquarters. The statement said, however, that the federation’s current board of directors was seated in late June and had “no way of knowing if the documents are relevant to the case or if they originated at the ranch.”
The Olympic committee has for months considered severing the gymnastics federation’s ties to Olympic sports and ending its authority over the sport, Sandusky said. The U.S.O.C. had grown increasingly frustrated as U.S.A. Gymnastics stumbled in its attempts to move forward after the Nassar scandal and gain the trust of the gymnastics community and its leading athletes.
The federation has made a series of hires that have upset and angered many of Nassar’s victims.
The gymnastics federation has had three chief executives in less than two years. That void in leadership comes at a time when the federation is also mired in a crushing number of lawsuits filed by girls and women who were abused by Nassar. There is little chance that it will be able to settle those cases quickly, and it is possible that the settlements will bankrupt the organization.
The mystery surrounding the documents and the questions of how they were handled led the U.S.O.C. to decide that U.S.A. Gymnastics, in its current form, would not be able to overhaul itself and that a new governing entity might have to be created. For months, government officials and former gymnasts have insisted as much.
According to a person with knowledge of the process, Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of the U.S.O.C., had been considering stripping U.S.A. Gymnastics of its powers as a national governing body, known as decertification, since moving into her job in August. She decided last weekend to make the move after the national team returned from the world artistic gymnastics championships in Doha, Qatar, where the American women’s team won its fourth consecutive world title. The announcement was welcomed by many people in the sport.
“If they’re going to decertify,” said Dominique Moceanu, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist who now owns a gym in Ohio, “they should do it quickly so the athletes can prepare for the next Olympics.”
The process of moving toward decertification could take months. To decertify the gymnastics federation and take away its role of overseeing every level of the sport in the country, the U.S.O.C. has to appoint a review board, hold a hearing and wait for the review panel to issue a report. Then the U.S.O.C. board would hold a final vote on decertification.
In the meantime, the U.S.O.C. said it would manage the elite national teams. It is still trying to figure out how it will manage the federation’s other responsibilities, like overseeing local gyms, certifying coaches and managing its legal liabilities in litigation stemming from the sexual abuse scandal. U.S.A. Gymnastics will remain the governing body for the sport until the U.S.O.C. board holds its final vote.
The U.S.O.C.’s move is hardly a panacea. In the coming weeks, the law firm Ropes & Gray is expected to issue a long-awaited report on the Olympic committee’s handling of the Nassar matter.
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