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Through plea deal, USA Gymnastics doctor Nassar may avoid charges for alleged abuse at Olympics

Larry Nassar listens to testimony during a preliminary hearing, in Lansing, Mich., in February. (Robert Killips /Lansing State Journal via AP, File)

Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team physician accused by more than 100 women of sexual assault, has agreed to a plea deal that could mean he won’t ever face criminal charges stemming from allegations he assaulted Team USA gymnasts overseas at the Olympics and other international events.

Under the agreement, Nassar has agreed to plead guilty to three federal charges related to possession of child pornography. Each charge carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years. According to the agreement, U.S. attorneys will recommend a combined prison sentence of about 22 to 27 years for Nassar, a 53-year-old osteopathic physician and father of three.  

In exchange for Nassar’s admissions of guilt, U.S. attorneys in Michigan will not pursue charges related to “interstate/international travel with intent and engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places,” as well as allegations Nassar assaulted two children in his family’s swimming pool in the summer of 2015, according to the document. 

Doctor at center of USA Gymnastics scandal left warning signs at Michigan State

The plea agreement, first reported Friday evening by the Detroit News, was signed by Nassar on June 23, and by his attorney July 5. Prosecutors are expected to file the document in federal court Tuesday. Nassar still faces 22 state charges in Michigan relating to allegations of sexually assaulting children, and convictions in those cases could result in a life sentence. Nassar has maintained his innocence. His attorney, Matt Newburg, did not reply to a request to comment Monday.

Former Olympic gymnasts gave emotional testimonies on Capitol Hill in March 2017, detailing the alleged sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. (Video: Reuters)

In a phone interview Monday, the attorney representing seven former Team USA gymnasts who have accused Nassar of fondling and penetrating them with his fingers during routine examinations called the plea deal a “shameful” and “cowardly” decision by federal prosecutors.  

“The message that this sends to our Olympic and elite athletes in this country is that you don’t matter,” said John Manly, whose clients include Jamie Dantzscher, who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Manly also represents other former Team USA gymnasts who wish to remain anonymous who allege abuse by Nassar at other Olympics, the World Gymnastics Championships and the Pan American Games.   

An athlete accused her coach of sex abuse. Olympic officials stayed on the sideline.

A spokeswomen for the U.S. attorney’s office in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the case is located, did not respond to a request to comment Monday.

U.S. attorneys would have faced jurisdictional issues pursuing criminal charges involving acts that occurred in foreign countries, according to Guy Womack, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney in Houston.

“If it happens overseas, and it’s not on land or property that is used or occupied by the United States, then the federal government really doesn’t have a claim there,” Womack said.

Manly pointed out that U.S. attorneys have used federal laws in other cases to pursue charges against Americans who committed sex crimes against children while traveling abroad.

“If they didn’t have the authority to charge him, then why the hell did they investigate it?” Manly said.  

The plea agreement also could mean Nassar never faces criminal charges over allegations he assaulted gymnasts at Bela and Martha Karolyi’s ranch in Huntsville, Tex., which for years has served as the training facility for USA Gymnastics’ women’s team.

Texas Rangers had been investigating allegations of abuse at the facility, but turned that case over to the FBI in Detroit, according to Lt. Craig Cummings of the Texas Department of Public Safety. A spokesman for the FBI’s Detroit office did not reply to a request to comment Monday.  

In the plea agreement, Nassar admits to knowingly collecting and possessing thousands of images and videos of child pornography between 2003 and 2016, and to trying to destroy evidence when he realized law enforcement was investigating him last year.

In September, the document states, Nassar paid $49 to have a computer service store “wipe” his work laptop, and also tried to dispose of two hard drives. Police discovered the hard drives in Nassar’s garbage cans when they came to search his home. An FBI agent later testified that the hard drives contained approximately 37,000 images and videos of child pornography, some showing girls as young as 6.

Read the full plea agreement between federal prosecutors and Larry Nassar here

Last week, Manly said, prosecutors reached out to his clients to inform them of the deal. In explaining the decision not to pursue other charges against Nassar, prosecutors told Manly’s clients that several victims were unwilling to testify, Manly said.  

“Is it hard work to prosecute someone like that? Sure. But that’s their job … It’s just mind-blowing,” Manly said.

Nassar served as a volunteer physician for USA Gymnastics, the organization that trains and selects Team USA gymnasts, for nearly 30 years, and treated gymnasts at four Summer Olympics. Nassar also worked full-time in the school of osteopathic medicine at Michigan State, where he treated the Spartans’ gymnasts and other college athletes. The majority of the more than 100 women who have sued Nassar and Michigan State have alleged assault in connection with his employment at the university.

In June 2015, officials at USA Gymnastics in Indianapolis became aware of an allegation of abuse against Nassar, the organization has said. USA Gymnastics investigated on its own for five weeks, and then reported Nassar to the FBI.

USA Gymnastics ended its relationship with Nassar in July 2015, but did not publicize the separation. In March, USA Gymnastics president and chief executive Steve Penny resigned as the organization drew rising criticism for the five-week delay in reporting Nassar to law enforcement.

Nassar continued to work at Michigan State, and treat athletes and children at a university clinic, until last August, when a woman filed a criminal complaint with the university police. USA Gymnastics officials have said FBI agents told them not to inform Michigan State of their suspicions about Nassar in 2015. The FBI has declined to confirm this.