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USA Gymnastics CEO Lauded Best Practices Pre-Scandal

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In the spring of 2015, shortly before USA Gymnastics learned its longtime team physician was sexually abusing gymnasts in what would become one of the biggest sports scandals in history, Chief Executive Officer Steve Penny praised the national governing body as an exemplar of best practices.

USA Gymnastics, Penny said in an interview, "has been on the front of developing policies ... for many, many years, and that threat as you describe it, has a lot of implications that can take you down if you don't handle things correctly."

Penny has not spoken about USA Gymnastics' handling of sexual abuse complaints or his role in the process since he was forced out in March 2017. Facing several lawsuits, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a Senate hearing last week.

Audio of that interview in 2015, which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports, reveals Penny's mindset on his job even as the organization was on the verge of the biggest crisis the U.S. Olympic movement has faced.

"I mean, we feel like we're pretty good right now," he said.

Penny's attorney, Edith Matthai, did not respond to questions provided by USA TODAY Sports on Monday.

USA Gymnastics has been mired in scandal after revelations from hundreds of women and girls that longtime team doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment.

An investigation by The Indianapolis Star, which is part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, in the summer of 2016 revealed USA Gymnastics policies that allowed predatory coaches to remain in the sport despite warnings to the organization.

USA Gymnastics' handling of sexual abuse complaints has spawned five congressional hearings in the past 14 months. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) hired Boston-based law firm Ropes & Gray to investigate what the committee and USA Gymnastics knew about Nassar and when.

Shortly before USA Gymnastics learned about Nassar in June 2015, Penny lauded the organization and himself for fulfilling its mission statement: "Win medals, grow the sport, increase visibility and provide outstanding customer service."

"We're winning medals. We're the No. 1 country in the world in the medals count," Penny said. "We have probably one of the strongest social media followings in the Olympic movement, and the value of our social media actions are as great as anything. Our sponsor relationships are very solid. We do a great job of promoting our events, our ticket sales. Every metric that I could provide you is going up. We have money in the bank. We have a pretty decent nest egg."

'Best practice for the industry'

USA Gymnastics and Penny faced questions and legal threats about how they handled sexual abuse cases well before Penny spoke in the spring of 2015 of the organization's strong record on child protection.

In 2013, a former gymnast filed a lawsuit in Georgia after her coach, William McCabe, secretly videotaped her in states of undress.

USA Gymnastics had received at least four warnings about McCabe but had not banned him, the plaintiff argued in the lawsuit. McCabe is serving a 30-year sentence after pleading to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements.

The lawsuit revealed that USA Gymnastics kept sexual abuse complaint files on at least 54 coaches during a 10-year period ending in 2006. As part of the lawsuit, Penny was deposed in November 2014. USA Gymnastics reached a confidential settlement in the lawsuit this year and did not admit to wrongdoing or liability.

Penny's deposition and others taken in the case, which were released after an Indy Star lawsuit last year, revealed that USA Gymnastics' policy during that period was not to forward allegations of child sex abuse to authorities unless a victim or victim's parent submitted a written and signed complaint.

Penny was confident in the interview in 2015 that USA Gymnastics was actually a leader handling sexual abuse allegations.

"Since I've been CEO, one of our biggest priorities has been to continue to evolve that policy and those procedures about how we deal with those issues, to be as much a best practice for the industry as a whole as it can possibly be, because the areas that you know you're vulnerable, you need to have policies and procedures that allow it to work, so that you have a textbook that you can follow to guide you through some of the more difficult topics that you may have to deal with," Penny said in 2015.

"I think that's the best example, so that when we find something that's really, really challenging like that, we have policies and procedures that I rely on every step of the way, so that I can go back and say, 'What's the next step?' And if you're asking yourself, 'What's the right thing to do?' you go back to the policy and say you followed the policy."

'Bigger and better'

Penny was right in that USA Gymnastics was once considered a leader in the U.S. Olympic movement in preventing and responding to sexual abuse.

In the 1990s, it was the first to create a list of permanently ineligible members, something many national governing bodies (NGB) still don't have. It began including presentations on sexual misconduct awareness at its annual regional and national conference in 2005.

In 2009, it created a participant welfare policy that defined sexual abuse and included recommendations to help clubs create policies to try to prevent abuse.

Penny, who joined USA Gymnastics in 1999 and took over as CEO in 2005, was part of a USOC-created working group that in 2013 recommended creating an independent entity to handle reports of sexual abuse for the NGBs.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport, which opened last year to independently investigate claims of sexual abuse in the Olympic movement, received more than 800 reports in its first 15 months.

At the USOC's opening conference for the Rio Olympics, then-CEO Scott Blackmun praised USA Gymnastics as "one of the most vocal proponents of creating very strong policies, procedures and investigative resources to take a look at this."

Those comments came one day after the Star's investigation revealed four cases in which USA Gymnastics failed to report allegations of child sexual abuse to authorities.

That led to the first public claims against Nassar in September 2016, when Rachael Denhollander contacted the Star.

By then, USA Gymnastics was aware of issues with the doctor.

Athletes first expressed concern about him to USA Gymnastics in June 2015, though affidavits submitted to the Senate committee show it was not immediately clear sexual abuse was involved. Although USA Gymnastics maintained for months that it "immediately" reported the concerns about Nassar to the FBI, it revealed in February 2017 that it waited more than five weeks while it hired a private consultant to conduct an investigation.

Nassar, 54, is serving a 60-year federal sentence for child pornography charges. He was convicted of 10 counts of sexual assault in Michigan and faces a minimum of 40 years in prison after his federal sentence is over.

Olympic champions Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber are among more than 300 women and girls who said Nassar abused them under the guise of medical treatment.

In lawsuits against USA Gymnastics and Penny, dozens of victims accused the organization of valuing money and medals over athlete safety. The NGB and Penny denied the claims.

A USA Gymnastics-commissioned investigation led by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels released in June 2017 found the NGB failed to keep up with the kinds of policies Penny had touted more than two years before.

By the time of the report's release, Penny was gone. In 2015, there were no obvious outward signs of the scandal that would come to engulf the sport.

Penny touted the success of the organization.

"I'm not saying I'm responsible for everything," he said, "but I'm just saying that -- I had a great predecessor that did a great job for the few years he was here. But my results as CEO in the last 10 years are arguably and easily, bigger and better than anybody else that's ever had this job."

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June 13, 2018
 
 
 

 

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