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DOJ to pay nearly $138 million over FBI failures in Larry Nassar case

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than 100 people who reported being abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar will share a nearly $140,000,000 settlement.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That announcement Tuesday from the Department of Justice comes nine years after the FBI first received complaints about Nassar, and it resolves claims that the FBI failed to conduct a proper investigation, allowing Nassar to continue abusing athletes and patients for a full year before his arrest.

MARTIN: Kate Wells with Michigan Public has been following this shocking and very disturbing case from the beginning and is with us now to tell us more about it. Good morning, Kate.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: Could you just start with this timeline? When did the FBI first become aware of the allegations against Nassar?

WELLS: Yeah. I mean, as you mentioned, so, Larry Nassar was the team doctor for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team until 2015. He was also the team doctor and sports doctor at Michigan State University until 2016. And, of course, for decades, he sexually abused hundreds of patients and athletes under the guise of medical treatment. And when he was arrested and charged in court, dozens and dozens of women and girls gave these powerful testimonies about the abuse that they'd suffered, how they tried to report it. And that really was what put the heat on USA Gymnastics officials, who said, well, look, we went to the FBI back in 2015.

MARTIN: What did they tell the FBI? And what did the FBI do in response to these reports?

WELLS: In 2015, the then-head of USA Gymnastics told the FBI field office in Indianapolis, which is where USA Gymnastics is based, that they had received complaints about Nassar from three young gymnasts. But the FBI agents in Indianapolis only interviewed one of those gymnasts, Olympian McKayla Maroney. At a Senate hearing three years ago, Maroney testified about that interview with the FBI in 2015, which took place over the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCKAYLA MARONEY: I remember sitting on my bedroom floor for nearly 3 hours as I told them what happened to me. I hadn't even told my own mother about these facts, but I thought as uncomfortable, as hard as it was to tell my story, I was going to make a difference in hopefully protecting others from the same abuse.

WELLS: But those FBI agents did not follow up with the other two gymnasts. And meanwhile, USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar to quietly retire as their team doctor, which then allowed him to keep working at Michigan State University where he continued abusing patients.

MARTIN: Hearing this all put together like that, it's just absolutely horrifying. So what finally stopped him?

WELLS: It was the Michigan State University police. They finally arrested him in 2016 while they were investigating separate complaints. They had no idea that the FBI had been alerted. And of course, by then, it had been a full year since the FBI was first notified about Nassar.

MARTIN: So that brings us to this settlement. Is this essentially an FBI apology?

WELLS: Yeah, there are 139 people who are part of this settlement who report being abused by Nassar. And in 2021, the Department of Justice did an investigation into what went wrong with the FBI's handling. And that is when the director of the FBI issued an official apology. But this settlement -when you talk to people involved in it, say, this is about accountability. The DOJ issued a statement on Tuesday saying these allegations should have been taken seriously from the outset. While these settlements won't undo the harm Nassar inflicted, our hope is that they will give the victims of his crimes some of the critical support they need to continue healing.

MARTIN: That is Michigan Public reporter Kate Wells. Kate, thank you so much for joining us.

WELLS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and co-host of the Michigan Radio and NPR podcast Believed. The series was widely ranked among the best of the year, drawing millions of downloads and numerous awards. She and co-host Lindsey Smith received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Judges described their work as "a haunting and multifaceted account of U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s belated arrest and an intimate look at how an army of women – a detective, a prosecutor and survivors – brought down the serial sex offender."