(Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Even before he started cursing from the podium at a U.S. spy agency, Bobby Knight was an unorthodox choice to deliver a lecture on leadership.

Employees at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) complained in advance about their boss’s decision to invite the Hall of Fame basketball coach to give a speech at their headquarters, given his history of bullying players, demeaning women and throwing furniture. But that was nothing compared with the troubles triggered by Knight’s July 10, 2015, visit to the agency at Fort Belvoir, Va., near Washington.

Four women who worked at the spy agency alleged that Knight had groped or touched them inappropriately in brief encounters before and after his speech, according to investigative documents and interviews with more than a dozen NGA officials.

The allegations, which have not been previously made public, led to criminal investigations by the FBI and the U.S. Army. The Pentagon, Congress and other intelligence agencies in Washington were alerted.

The women accused Knight of a range of boorish behavior: from touching them on the shoulder while commenting on the attractiveness of their legs, to hugging them too tightly around the chest, to hitting them on the buttocks, according to documents compiled by investigators and Washington Post interviews with three of the women.

Coach Bobby Knight winds up and pitches a chair across the floor during Indiana's 72-63 loss to Purdue in 1985. (AP photos)

The criminal investigations into Knight lasted a year, culminating in a July 2016 interview with FBI agents at his home in Montana, law enforcement officials said. The retired college coach denied wrongdoing and federal prosecutors in Virginia decided not to bring charges, according to Knight’s attorney and federal officials familiar with the case.

“There is absolutely no credible evidence to support this in our opinion, these allegations,” said James Voyles, an Indianapolis lawyer who represents Knight. The FBI agents, he added, “reported to their superiors that there was no basis for any further action, period.”

Knight, now 76, did not respond to requests for comment. In a text message to The Post, his wife, Karen Knight, said: “Bob did nothing wrong and there is NO evidence to prove that he did. Case closed.”

Two years after his speech, fallout from Knight’s visit is still reverberating at the NGA, an arm of the Defense Department that employs about 14,500 civilians, uniformed personnel and contractors. The intelligence agency analyzes imagery of Earth’s surface and played a key role in the 2011 raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Most of its work is classified.

The investigation into Knight tested pledges made by the U.S. military in recent years to crack down on sexual assault and harassment. The Pentagon has sought to reassure troops and civilian employees that all complaints will be taken seriously and that victims will be protected.

One woman has filed a sex and race discrimination complaint with the Defense Department against the NGA, alleging that she was denied promotion and given poor performance reviews in retaliation for reporting that she was groped by Knight. Her case is pending.

The Knight incident underscores broader problems that have bedeviled the agency for years, including a high number of cases in which senior officials have been hit with sanctions for personal misconduct.

Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, appears before a Senate panel during a May 11 hearing on national security. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Since 2013, 22 senior leaders have been disciplined or forced to leave the agency for offenses including bank fraud, bullying and inappropriate relationships with subordinates, according to investigative reports by the NGA inspector general that were obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

Last year, an internal survey found that a majority of the workforce believed the agency was heading in the wrong direction and would leave if offered the same job and pay elsewhere.

More recently, the NGA’s Employee Council has posted memos accusing senior leaders of tolerating harassment and misbehavior, with some members citing the Knight case as an example.

Last month, NGA Director Robert Cardillo addressed his employees at a town hall and acknowledged the criticisms. Cardillo, 55, said he had “failed” to instill a “culture of respect” at the agency and pledged to fix the problem.

Babysitting the ballboy

The back story of how Bobby Knight ended up as a guest speaker at the little-known spy agency dates to the 1960s, when he was the young head coach of the Army men’s basketball team at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Then in his 20s, Knight struck up a friendship with Capt. Richard Cardillo, the officer liaison to the basketball team. The coach babysat for the captain’s two sons and let one of them, Robert, serve as a team ballboy.

On the bench, Robert Cardillo would often sit next to the Army point guard, Mike Krzyzewski. After Knight and Krzyzewski moved on to coaching stardom at Indiana University and Duke University, respectively, Cardillo spent his summers working at their basketball camps.

As a young man, Cardillo became an intelligence analyst for the federal government and gradually rose through the executive ranks. In October 2014, he took over as NGA chief. Knight attended his swearing-in ceremony as an honored guest.

Several months later, Cardillo invited Knight to return as part of a distinguished-speaker series. An NGA announcement of the event listed Knight’s career highlights: a three-time national champion at Indiana, the coach of the 1984 Olympic gold-medal squad, author and ESPN commentator.

On an internal agency blog, many NGA employees responded to the invitation with jeers. In written comments, they cited several other moments from Knight’s record, including the times he was accused of punching out a policeman in Puerto Rico and choking an Indiana player. They also recalled a 1988 television interview when he infamously remarked, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”

“Why in the world is anyone who was abusive as Bobby Knight being invited to our agency as a speaker?” one NGA employee asked on the blog, copies of which were obtained by The Post.

Responded another: “I guess senior management views the ‘choke your underlings, toss chairs across the room, turn the air blue with profanity, and make everyone scared to be in your presence’ to be an interesting update” to the agency’s leadership practices.

Some praised the choice. “I applaud NGA’s taking a stand and embracing controversial guest speakers,” one person wrote. “Can we get Donald Trump next?”

Privately, however, even some of Cardillo’s senior advisers said they warned him that Knight might not be a good fit. In an interview with The Post at NGA headquarters, Cardillo defended the invitation, saying that while he knew Knight might make waves with his remarks, he never dreamed the coach would find himself under criminal investigation.

“Last thing on my mind, furthest thing from my mind,” Cardillo said. “As a kid and as an adult, I’ve been around him for these things before and he’s pretty entertaining and he tells some interesting vignettes.”

“Did I think he might use some foul language? Yes,” he said. “I think even if I had asked him not to, he might take the Lord’s name in vain. I kind of bought that risk.”

‘He is a dirty old man’

On the morning of July 10, 2015, Knight arrived in Washington by train at Union Station. Accompanying him was Richard Cardillo, his old friend from West Point, since retired from the Army as a brigadier general.

The two men were picked up by a female NGA employee who said she was assigned to drive them south to the NGA’s main complex in Springfield, Va. Knight and Richard Cardillo climbed in the back seat of the vehicle, the woman recalled in an interview. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she said she wanted to protect her privacy.

Knight made a comment about how “he could tell I was an athlete from my legs. Then he touched my shoulder, which you really don’t do to a female, you know,” she recalled.

The woman said the encounter made her uncomfortable, but she chalked up his behavior to age.

“I don’t think he did anything malicious at all,” she said. “I wasn’t really offended by him. These were things that if a 30-year-old man did it in the workplace today, he’d get in trouble.” She said she was interviewed by the FBI but did not press a complaint.

She and the other three women who accused Knight of touching them are named in documents from the discrimination complaint filed by one of the alleged victims. The Post generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault or harassment.

The second alleged incident occurred as Knight arrived at NGA headquarters. Inside the main entrance, he greeted another female employee by putting his hands on the sides of her chest and lifting her off the ground, according to an NGA official who said she witnessed the encounter and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

The woman who was allegedly hoisted by the chest declined to comment.

Later in the day, NGA officials were preparing to introduce Knight for his speech in the William Allder Auditorium. Knight was waiting backstage with the NGA official who had witnessed the incident at the entrance, documents show.

Moments before he walked into the auditorium, Knight suddenly put his arm around her shoulders and groped her on the buttocks, the woman told The Post in an interview. She said she was so startled that she could barely maintain her composure.

“You can shake my hand. You can give me a hug. But you don’t get to feel me up on my body,” she said.

A male NGA employee, Marc Byers, reported to a supervisor that he witnessed the incident. In a signed statement provided to investigators as part of the discrimination complaint, he said he was standing directly behind the woman when he saw Knight grab her on the buttocks multiple times.

As soon as Knight took the stage, Byers said he exclaimed to the woman, “Bobby Knight hit you on your ass! He is a dirty old man!” or words to that effect, according to his statement. He did not respond to requests for further comment.

Knight delivered his speech, which was recorded by the NGA. The agency, however, denied requests to release a copy, saying that the video or audio could expose the identities of intelligence officials present in the audience. Instead, the agency provided a transcript.

According to the transcript, Knight lived up to his reputation as an entertaining, if rambling, speaker by sharing old locker-room stories and a few profane outbursts.

The audience cheered as Knight recalled how he used to babysit the NGA chief and his brother. “There wasn’t a day that I took care of them,” he said, “that I didn’t at some point say, ‘Goddammit, Robert, sit down and be quiet.’ ”

After Knight’s speech, NGA employees lined up to seek autographs. A fourth woman told NGA officials that once she reached the front of the line, the coach greeted her with a smack on the buttocks.

In an interview with The Post, the woman was reluctant to discuss the incident. “It happened very quickly,” she said. “It was weird. It was surprising, but it wasn’t surprising,” she added, noting Knight’s age. She likened his behavior to that of “a drunk uncle.”

The woman said she was interviewed by the FBI and other investigators but declined to file a formal complaint.

“I just let it go,” she said. “Honestly, my job was just more important than what was going on in that situation.”

The director’s role

Word of Knight’s actions spread at the agency.

Multiple employees of Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm with numerous staffers assigned to NGA headquarters, observed Knight’s “comments and behavior” and were so concerned that they filed reports with the company, according to Kimberly West, a spokeswoman. She declined to elaborate but said the firm notified NGA officials.

Within a week of Knight’s visit, NGA officials informed Robert Cardillo that four of his employees had reported being groped or touched inappropriately by the retired coach.

In his interview with The Post, Cardillo said he was “shocked” and “stunned” by the allegations. He said he had been in Knight’s presence for most of the day and did not observe anything improper.

Asked whether he believed the women’s accounts, Cardillo demurred, saying, “I’m not sure that’s material.”

He and other NGA officials acknowledged that the situation presented legal and ethical land mines, especially in light of the Defense Department’s campaign against sexual assault.

At the same time, given Knight’s fame and their close personal relationship, Cardillo said he was worried that the women might be reluctant to pursue a complaint or seek counseling.

“You can imagine my concern that people aren’t going to say something, or fear that I’m going to come after them if they raise an issue,” he said. “So I just wanted to make sure we were doing both things — take care of the people that have the concerns and just make sure that we follow the process by the book.”

Mindful of the potential political ramifications, Cardillo and his staff began alerting senior officials at other agencies in Washington about Knight’s visit. Sorting out who should be responsible for investigating his alleged misconduct, however, was more difficult.

The case was first referred by the NGA staff to the inspectors general for the agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Then it was turned over to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which has jurisdiction over NGA headquarters at Fort Belvoir.

NGA officials said Cardillo recused himself from any role in overseeing the investigations. But with rumors flying at the agency, Cardillo said he felt a personal obligation to address the matter with his workforce.

At an NGA town hall 17 days after Knight’s visit, Cardillo explained why he had invited him in the first place. Choosing his words carefully, he acknowledged that not everybody was happy with the visit, though he made no mention of the pending investigations.

“Some of the feedback was positive. Some have said that his word choices, aspects of his personal style, were contrary to our norms and made them feel uncomfortable,” Cardillo said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “So, why I’m bringing it up is, look, I regret if anyone on our team was offended by any aspect of the visit.”

In the Post interview, Cardillo said he also felt a responsibility to check on the four women. He said he offered to meet individually with each of them, “to let them know that I supported, you know, the process and their right to document and to file and whatever they needed to do.”

Only one took him up on his offer — the woman who was backstage when she said Knight groped her on the buttocks.

In a statement filed as part of her discrimination complaint, the woman said that Cardillo informed her that the NGA was not legally liable for Knight’s words or actions. She also said that he asked her whether Knight had touched her on the buttocks in the way a coach might approvingly pat a player on the rear end.

“I felt that he was giving me an order to drop this issue and go back to work like a good little girl,” she said in her statement. “I felt at that moment he had chosen his friendship with Bobby Knight over my psychological welfare, and called me to his office to let me know that.”

In a statement submitted in response to her complaint, Cardillo said he did not recall telling her that the NGA was not liable for Knight’s conduct. He also denied suggesting that Knight might have patted her on the buttocks as he would a player.

“I responded with great concern and empathy,” he recalled in his statement. “I told her that I would support whatever decision she would decide to take.”

In the following days, the woman said, she began to receive poor job evaluations and was notified that she would not be promoted to a senior executive job. In August 2015, she filed her discrimination complaint against the NGA and the Defense Department.

Her case is still pending.

Handover to the FBI

That same month, the criminal investigation into Knight hit a bump.

Agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command had interviewed the four women and several witnesses. But because Knight was a civilian without a military affiliation, law enforcement officials said they decided to transfer responsibility for the case to the FBI.

According to emails obtained by The Post, NGA and Army officials informed the women in August 2015 that they would be contacted soon by the FBI.

But for reasons that remain unclear, FBI agents let the investigation lay dormant until April 2016, when they re-interviewed the women, according to the emails. Nicole Schwab, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington field office, declined to comment or to explain the reasons for the delay.

By then, Knight was generating national headlines for his endorsement of Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

Wearing his trademark red sweater, the coach appeared with Trump on April 27, 2016, at a rally at the Indiana state fairgrounds. In his remarks, Knight praised Trump but also repeated verbatim many of the stories and jokes he had delivered in his NGA lecture the previous summer.

Trump has since credited Knight with helping him to win the GOP primary in Indiana on May 3, 2016.

Weeks later, FBI agents consulted with prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia about the status of their investigation of Knight. They decided the evidence against him was not likely to result in a successful prosecution, according to a federal law enforcement official familiar with the case. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The case was presented to U.S. Attorney Dana Boente for a final decision. Boente, however, instructed the FBI to interview Knight first to see whether he would say anything incriminating or possibly confess, the federal law enforcement official said.

Failing that, the law enforcement official said, the FBI agents were told to send a message to Knight that if there were any more complaints he could be arrested.

In July 2016, FBI agents traveled to Bozeman, Mont., to speak with Knight at his home there. Also present was Knight’s old friend from West Point, Richard Cardillo, the retired general and father of the NGA director.

Reached briefly by telephone, Richard Cardillo acknowledged to The Post that he was also interviewed by the FBI. He called the allegations against Knight “unfounded” and “completely false” but declined to comment further.

Knight denied any wrongdoing to the FBI. His attorney, James Voyles, said that it was “the first and only time” Knight had been interviewed by law enforcement agents about his visit to the NGA and that he had been unaware he was under investigation until the FBI contacted him.

Federal authorities closed the case soon after.