Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney was just a teenager in 2015, when she was interviewed by the FBI about allegations that then-USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused her. “I thought I was going to die that night because there was no way he was going to let me go,” Maroney recalled during a Senate hearing last month.
Two Indianapolis FBI agents were assigned to the case: W. Jay Abbott, then the special agent in charge of the city’s FBI office, and Michael Langeman, at the time a supervisory special agent.
Instead of receiving help, Maroney ― along with fellow gymnasts Aly Raisman, Simone Biles and Maggie Nichols ― were ignored. Their accusations of serial child sexual abuse were dismissed. Abbott and Langeman not only failed to interview all of the victims who initially came forward, they conducted very limited follow-up interviews with key witnesses and never notified other law enforcement agencies of potential crimes in their jurisdictions. In fact, Abbott and Langeman never formally opened an investigation into Nassar.
Over the eight months that followed, Abbott and Langeman did nothing. At one point, Abbott, the more senior of the two agents, met with then-USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny, but only to discuss a potential job opportunity with the U.S. Olympic Committee. During this time, Nassar abused at least 70 more girls and women, according to a Department of Justice report.
When the two agents were confronted with their misconduct in 2017 ― after Nassar was sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of young athletes ― they blamed others. They made false statements and omitted integral information about their initial investigation. The two agents later lied to investigators from the inspector general’s office in order “to minimize errors made by the Indianapolis Field Office,” according to the DOJ report, which came out in July and brought renewed attention to the botched investigation.
Langeman was fired from the bureau just weeks before an October Senate hearing discussing the DOJ’s findings on the FBI investigation. Abbott retired in 2018. Despite their misconduct, the DOJ initially announced it would not pursue charges against them. On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said the Justice Department is reviewing that decision.
Two former FBI agents told HuffPost the bureau’s “misogynist” and “patriarchal” culture are to blame for the blatant misconduct in the Nassar case. Jane Turner and Mike German, veterans with a combined record of more than 40 years of service in the bureau, described a culture of mismanagement fueled by toxic competition in an old boys’ club that only rewards the people who look like them.
“I was not surprised by the way the FBI handled Nassar,” Turner said. “That’s the FBI’s culture.”
Turner, a 25-year veteran and the first woman named as the head of an FBI resident agency, blew the whistle on the FBI’s mishandling of sexual abuse crimes against women and children on North Dakota Indian reservations. In Turner’s experience, certain FBI programs, such as counterterrorism, are seen as more prestigious with greater opportunities for career advancement. Other programs, such as sex crimes or crimes against children, are often relegated to “the pink ghetto,” she said.
“The culture there is like the culture in most law enforcement: sexism, sexual harassment ― it’s all there,” Turner said. “So, when you’re dealing with children or sexual assault matters, the culture in the bureau is that it does not fall into any area that is considered worthy of working.”
German, a 16-year veteran of federal law enforcement, pointed to the demographics of the FBI: Nearly 80% of special agents are men. Because of this, he said, there is “routine misogyny expressed in many forms” within the bureau.
“There’s long been accusations that there’s an old boys club at the FBI within management that still dominates, and I think that’s true,” German said. “When you look at sex crimes, that’s not necessarily something that the average white male worries about as far as priorities.”
German emphasized that the FBI’s hierarchy is routinely problematic and often leads higher-level managers to prioritize their career advancement ahead of the job at hand. When managers such as Abbott and Langeman are involved in cases ― rather than day-to-day field agents ― that’s when you know things are “probably going to go off the rails,” German said.
“Law enforcement in the United States … it’s about protecting privilege, protecting power structure,” German said. “So it’s not surprising to me that the special agent in charge in this situation concluded this wasn’t a serious crime that needed investigation, but rather a job opportunity.”
Law enforcement in the United States … it’s about protecting privilege, protecting power structure. So it’s not surprising to me that the special agent in charge in this situation concluded this wasn’t a serious crime that needed investigation, but rather a job opportunity.Mike German, former FBI special agent
Angela Poviliatis, the head prosecutor in Nassar’s case, is cautiously optimistic about the Justice Department review into whether the agents should be prosecuted. “I think it’s something that survivors and others allied with them want to see happen, at a minimum,” she told HuffPost.
“If there is a further declination of charges, I think survivors are owed an explanation as to why that’s the decision that’s made after a second review,” Poviliatis added. “If it’s grounded in fact and law, then I think anyone can understand that. That’s why the explanation is so important. Because right now we’re left with an inspector general report that clearly indicates agents were not honest and yet have not been held accountable.”
Neither German nor Turner believe the ultimate result will be accountability, however.
“It’s very rare for agents to be prosecuted,” said German, adding that he’s unaware of any case where an agent was charged for misconduct. “That the FBI fired the one supervisor on the eve of the congressional hearing was actually more unusual. Typically these managers are not even punished.”
During the October Senate hearing discussing the DOJ’s report, FBI Director Chris Wray gave what felt like a genuine and passionate apology, promising to do better.
“I’d like to make a promise to the women who appeared here today and to all survivors of abuse,” Wray said in the hearing. “I am not interested in simply addressing this wrong and moving on. It’s my commitment to you that I and my entire senior leadership team are going to make damn sure that everybody at the FBI remembers what happened here in heartbreaking detail. We need to remember the pain that occurred when our folks failed to do their jobs.”
Turner wasn’t convinced.
“Director Wray came out and said these platitudes, they’re going to institute this and institute that. And that’s really nice, but does this change your culture Director Wray? Does this change the misogyny?” she asked.
“What does Wray tell the entire FBI collective when he does nothing except throw the supervisor as a sacrificial lamb two weeks before the Senate hearing? What does that tell the FBI? It tells them they’re untouchable. They’ve always known that. They’re untouchable.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.