Steve Penny Asked F.B.I. to Help Protect U.S.A. Gymnastics’ Image During Sex Abuse Case

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The president of U.S.A. Gymnastics discussed the possibility of a top security job at the United States Olympic Committee with an F.B.I. agent investigating the national team doctor on allegations of sexual abuse.

Steve Penny, the federation president, who stepped down in March 2017, had also worried about the organization’s image and sought to cultivate a close relationship with federal investigators, going so far as to ask for their recommendations on the wording of public statements about the investigation, according to emails reviewed by The New York Times. In one email to an F.B.I. employee, he wrote, “We need some cover.”

Yet Mr. Penny went further in his contacts with Jay Abbott, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s field office in Indianapolis. Because the gymnastics federation is based in Indianapolis, that field office had begun the inquiry into the doctor, Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar. Dr. Nassar, who abused scores of gymnasts during his tenure, is now in prison.

Mr. Penny’s lawyer, Edith R. Matthai, in response to questions about whether Mr. Abbott had been offered a job while the agency was investigating Dr. Nassar, confirmed that the U.S.O.C. position had been discussed but insisted there was no conflict of interest.

“Mr. Penny told Mr. Abbott that the head of security of the U.S.O.C. would be retiring and that Mr. Abbott might be interested in that position after he retired from the F.B.I.,” Ms. Matthai said in a statement.

She said Mr. Penny believed the case had been transferred out of Mr. 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 said. “There was no conflict of interest.”

The Justice Department has been investigating the F.B.I.’s handling of the Nassar case, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The F.B.I. declined to comment for this article, and Mr. Abbott did not return a phone call or respond to two text messages seeking comment. In July 2017, the U.S.O.C. hired Nicole Deal as its head of security.

Yet the discussion about the security job points to the aggressive efforts Mr. Penny made to develop close relations with investigators and preserve the image of an organization as it drowned in scandal, an effort that becomes clear in a series of emails between Mr. Penny and F.B.I. employees.

On Wednesday, Mr. Penny was arrested on allegations of tampering with evidence in an investigation of sex crimes committed by Dr. Nassar, who worked with the national gymnastics team. Mr. Penny, who was taken into custody while on vacation in Tennessee, is charged with having documents removed from a national team training center in Texas, where there were reports of sexual abuse.

Leigh Robie, another lawyer for Mr. Penny, said, “Mr. Penny is confident that when all the facts are known the allegations against him will be disproved.”

During his 12 years in charge of U.S.A. Gymnastics, Mr. Penny was known for his marketing skills and for micromanagement, especially when it came to the organization’s public image.

According to Texas law enforcement officials and several accounts by former U.S.A. Gymnastics officials, Mr. Penny tried to manage the case from the beginning. They said that upon hearing that Dr. Nassar was being investigated, Mr. Penny ordered the removal of Nassar-related documents from the Texas training center, called the Karolyi ranch.

A lawyer for Bela and Martha Karolyi, the ranch’s owners and two of the most prominent coaches in the sport, has denied that they had any knowledge of the abuse.

Mr. Penny’s arrest followed his indictment in Walker County, Tex., on Sept. 28. That indictment said Mr. Penny had intentionally or knowingly destroyed or concealed records or documents “with intent to impair the availability as evidence in the investigation.” Those documents, which law enforcement officials said in a statement on Wednesday had been delivered to Mr. Penny at U.S.A. Gymnastics headquarters in Indianapolis, have not been recovered.

In emails reviewed by The Times, Mr. Penny expressed his hope that law enforcement officials could protect his organization from negative publicity.

Just after 7 p.m. on Feb. 1 of last year, Mr. Penny wrote to Laura Eimiller, an F.B.I. public affairs officer in Los Angeles, seeking the bureau’s help. In the communiqué, he noted that he had talked to Mr. Abbott, who at the time was the special agent in charge of the F.B.I. bureau in Indianapolis, and appeared to be in the thick of trying to handle the fallout from the case.

“I am at home,” Mr. Penny said in the email. “Spoke with Jay Abbott. We need some cover. Call at your convenience.”

Asked about the message, Mr. Penny’s lawyer, Ms. Matthai, said he had made the request because of claims that U.S.A. Gymnastics had not reported the allegations to the F.B.I.

She said Mr. Penny and U.S.A. Gymnastics had reported Dr. Nassar’s crimes in July 2015, “had responded to all of the F.B.I.’s requests for assistance, had been told by the F.B.I. that all the necessary interviews had been completed.”

However, she said, in February 2017, “there were media inquiries suggesting that no report had been made. That was false. Mr. Penny reached out to the F.B.I. press relations office in Los Angeles (since he understood that office was now handling the matter) asking that they confirm that the report had been made in 2015 in order to respond to the false allegation that U.S.A.G. did not report.”

While Mr. Penny did indeed report Dr. Nassar to the F.B.I., 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 Dr. Nassar during that time.

In an email to Mr. Abbott on July 30, 2015, Mr. Penny wrote about “a very squirmy Dr. Nassar,” saying, “Our biggest concern is how we contain him from sending shock waves through the community.”

Mr. Penny added, “Right now, we are looking for a graceful way to end his service in such a manner that he does not ‘chase the story.’”

What prompted Mr. Penny to describe Dr. Nassar as “squirmy” was a response from the doctor to an email from Scott D. Himsel, a lawyer for the gymnastics federation, in which he told Dr. Nassar, “because the review is ongoing, U.S.A. Gymnastics has determined that it is in everyone’s best interest that you not attend U.S.A. Gymnastics events or communicate with U.S.A. Gymnastics athletes and personnel until further notice.”

A clearly agitated Dr. Nassar wrote back: “This does not make sense to me. Please, I would like to have more details of what is happening, who has made the complaint and what the complaint is. I am confused as to what is happening here.”

At a national team training camp at the Karolyi ranch in the summer of 2015, Sarah Jantzi, a coach, overheard Maggie Nichols, a national team member, complaining that Dr. Nassar had touched her inappropriately. The coach notified the head of the women’s national team, Rhonda Faehn, who then told Mr. Penny, who started an internal investigation.

“I asked Steve Penny if I needed to report this to any other authorities and he reassured me, no, that he would handle it,” Ms. Jantzi wrote in a letter that was given to a Senate subcommittee investigating how the Nassar case was handled and how to protect athletes from sexual abuse.

Mr. Penny then heard that two more national team members — the Olympians Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney — also had concerns about Dr. Nassar.

In an email to Ms. Faehn, Mr. Penny asked her to gain the trust of Ms. Raisman and Ms. Maroney, whom he called Athlete B and Athlete C, so the gymnasts would agree to be interviewed by the federation’s private investigator. He told Ms. Faehn, “Our preference is for them to meet privately with the interviewer and not to involve their coach or parents,” a request that Ms. Faehn later told the Senate subcommittee had made her uncomfortable.

In a July 29, 2015, email that Mr. Penny sent to Mr. Abbott — whom he addresses as “Jay” — Mr. Penny sought his guidance on a proposed statement to the news media and a draft email to Dr. Nassar.

“Below are two pieces of communications strategy moving forward,” he wrote. “We wanted to share them with you for your quick review to be sure they are consistent with F.B.I. preferences. Please let me know if you concur with our messaging.”

He said with regard to U.S.A. Gymnastics’ role, “The question here, Jay, is whether or not we should say, ‘will cooperate’ or ‘is cooperating.’”

Mr. Abbott responded, “I concur with your below proposed media statement as provided (‘will cooperate’) and given the assessment stage of the F.B.I.’s involvement, I do not see any issue with your proposed communication to Dr. Nassar.”

Most of the emails between Mr. Penny and Mr. Abbott were copied to several other F.B.I. officials and a lawyer representing U.S.A. Gymnastics.

In another email, Mr. Penny told Mr. Abbott that U.S.A. Gymnastics had heard from Dr. Nassar and planned to respond, but not without the F.B.I.’s approval.

“Respectfully, may we assume that if we hear nothing further by 10 a.m. on Thursday morning that we may respond as previously communicated?” Mr. Penny said.

Mr. Abbott responded, “Certainly respond as you deem appropriate.”

In a number of the emails between Mr. Penny, Mr. Abbott and other F.B.I. agents, Mr. Penny appeared to be helping schedule F.B.I. interviews with some of Dr. Nassar’s victims. In others, Mr. Penny sought guidance from Mr. Abbott on how to handle Dr. Nassar.

In response to one of Mr. Penny’s emails on July 30, 2015, Mr. Abbott wrote, “You certainly are able to advise Dr. Nassar as you deem appropriate and we in no way want to hinder that or lead you to believe you must follow an ‘F.B.I. protocol,’ though the F.B.I. will not confirm or deny any ongoing investigation OR assessment.”

Days later, Mr. Penny wrote to Mr. Abbott: “I would like to catch up with you and your team as soon as possible regarding Athlete C. Is there an appropriate time for a call or a visit in the next few days?”

In an Aug. 12, 2015, email, Mr. Penny wrote to an F.B.I. agent, Michael Langeman, that U.S.A. Gymnastics was “getting close to next steps with Dr. Nassar following our event this week, so one way or another it would be helpful to have more perspective on this at your earliest convenience.”

Mr. Penny has declined to cooperate with a United States Senate subcommittee hearing on the Nassar investigation. He refused to answer questions when he appeared before the committee in June, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

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