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World Ex-official pleads fifth to Nassar questions

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel looking for answers from university and sports officials about a sex abuse scandal that affected hundreds of young athletes did not get much help on Tuesday from Steve Penny, the former president of USA Gymnastics.

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Lawmakers asked Penny several questions about Lawrence G. Nassar, a former national-team doctor who has been sentenced to a minimum of 60 years in prison for molesting gymnasts during Penny’s time as president.

When did Penny first become aware of the abuse? Did he indeed wait 41 days to contact law enforcement? Why did another USA Gymnastics official send Penny an email speaking about “a code of silence” in 2014, a year before Nassar was removed from his role as team doctor?

But six times, Penny — who resigned as president under pressure last year — refused to answer, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

He eventually walked out of the hearing long before the two other witnesses — Lou Anna K. Simon, the former president of Michigan State, which was Nassar’s primary employer, and Rhonda Faehn, a former USA Gymnastics official who was in charge of the women’s program — finished testifying.

As Penny left, Amy Moran Compton, a former gymnast who was abused by her coach decades ago, stood up and shouted, “Shame!”

In a statement, Penny’s lawyer, Robert J. Bittman, said that he had advised Penny not to testify “while the matters that attempt to wrongly shift blame for Nassar’s crimes remain open.”

Simon, who was forced to resign as Michigan State’s president in January, apologized to Nassar’s victims and generally deflected responsibility.

“We are an imperfect system,” she said. “Do I wish in hindsight that things could have been different? I have a lot of wishes.”

She told lawmakers that she had not become aware of accusations against Nassar until 2016 and that she had immediately fired him. When the panel asked her about a Title IX investigation in 2014 into an athlete’s accusation that Nassar had molested her, Simon said she had received a report about that investigation, but Nassar was not named and there had been “no finding” of wrongdoing.

When asked what she would have done differently, Simon did not give specifics, and some senators were perturbed by her limited answers.

“There are warning signs here that should have been heeded earlier at the very top of Michigan State University,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate subcommittee, said. “Apologies aren’t enough. We have to honor those survivors with real action.”

More than a dozen women who reported being abused by Nassar sat in the hearing room, many of them shaking their heads when Simon spoke.

“If anything, her testimony affirmed to me her commitment for skirting the facts and telling a story,” said Morgan McCaul, a dancer who has said Nassar started abusing her when she was 12. “These people have failed us, and if they are unable to accept responsibility, how will we learn from it and move forward?”

Faehn, a former senior vice president of USA Gymnastics, was the only one of the three witnesses on Tuesday who provided real information to the subcommittee. She was also the only one who appeared on her own volition: Penny and Simon were served subpoenas.

Faehn, choking up as she spoke, described how she had passed along a coach’s concerns about Nassar in July 2015, assuming that Penny would promptly report the information to law enforcement.

Instead, he waited several weeks. Faehn’s testimony shed light on what had happened between the time Penny learned of the abuse and when he went to the police about it. For one, Faehn said, Nassar was notified about the accusations before the police were.

Faehn also provided documents to the subcommittee that included an email from Penny to her and five other USA Gymnastics officials, including 1984 Olympic gold medalist Peter Vidmar. In the email, dated July 21, 2015, Penny acknowledged awareness of the “the current issue” about a member of the federation’s medical staff and instructed the email’s recipients “to not have any conversations with anyone concerning this issue until further notice.”

Faehn also submitted an email from Penny in which he asked her to help arrange interviews with gymnasts who had complained about Nassar’s conduct. In the email he emphasized to her that the coaches and parents should be left out of the matter.

Faehn, who last month was fired from her job with the gymnastics federation, told lawmakers that even though the FBI began an investigation in 2015, she was not interviewed by law enforcement until the Texas Rangers contacted her about a month ago. She described herself as “beyond stunned that I was never interviewed or questioned by anyone.”

“I think there still has to absolutely be people questioned,” she added, referring to other employees of USA Gymnastics who may know more about the Nassar case or the organization’s missteps regarding it. “There needs to be additional changes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

JULIET MACUR © 2018 The New York Times

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