WASHINGTON, D.C. — Heading into Tuesday’s United States Senate hearing on sexual abuse in Olympic sports, there was one witness whom survivors and their supporters were most curious to hear from: Former USA Gymnastics President and CEO, Steve Penny.
Penny resigned last spring under pressure from the U.S. Olympic Committee amidst the fallout from Larry Nassar’s abuse scandal — though not without a $1 million severance package — and hasn’t been heard from in over a year. There are plenty of questions that he needs to answer.
But Penny, who had to be subpoenaed in order to appear on Tuesday, wasn’t there to talk. In fact, the executive, who oversaw USA Gymnastics while Larry Nassar abused hundreds of gymnasts and the allegations of sex abuse against dozens upon dozens of other coaches were stuffed in a drawer and ignored, was only there to plead the fifth.
He prepared no opening statement, and gave a variation of the same speech every time he was asked a question:
Mr. Chairman, with respect to you and your question and the committee, I have been instructed by my attorney to assert my rights under the fifth amendment to the constitution which according to the United States Supreme Court in Ohio v, Reiner protects innocent men who might otherwise be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances where truthful responses of an innocent witness may provide the government with evidence from the speaker’s own mouth which it would somehow use against him. For that reason, and based upon the advice of my attorney, I must respectfully decline to answer your question.
After it became clear that Penny was going to plead the fifth on all of the questions posed by members of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security, he was dismissed from the hearing. As he exited, a woman in the audience who was abused by USA Gymnastics’ coach, stood up and yelled, “Shame!” in Penny’s direction.
But even though Penny chose not to be forthcoming with the committee members, the questions asked by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CA) were pointed enough that even his non-answers were incredibly revealing:
- Former gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar was convicted of criminal sexual misconduct with gymnasts, including members of the USA national team. My understanding is that you were first informed about this abuse on June 17, 2015. Is that correct?
- Let me ask you this. After being involved about the abuse, you arranged for a private investigation. How did that private investigation come about, and then my understanding is that you waited 41 days to contact law enforcement. Is that correct?
- Did you, Mr. Penny, on July the 29th, after Larry Nassar was relieved of his duties, ever contact Michigan State University or other employers of Larry Nassar to inform them of allegations of abuse?
- Mr. Penny, I respect your right to invoke your fifth amendment privilege. You have that right, but you also have a responsibility. You were a part of an organization that in effect prioritized medals and money over the young women and girls, some of them here today, who were sexually abused by Mr. Nassar. And, in fact, in the absence of the testimony, documents will speak for you. We have documents that indicated that as early as 2013 you had questions about Larry Nassar. In fact, in one of those memos that you wrote to Allen Ashley of the United States Olympic Committee you said, “If Larry Nassar is the gatekeeper, then we have a real issue.” What was the reason that you said that at that point?
- Mr. Penny, another of those documents dated July 9th of 2014 from Ron Galmore to Larry Nassar refers to a “code of silence” and indicates that you knew about it. Would you explain to this committee what part you had in either beginning or enforcing a code of silence that prevented young athletes from coming forward and complaining about abuse for fear of retaliation?
- You were a part of an organization, United States Gymnastics, that in effect gave Larry Nassar that badge of trust that he violated, and a trust that USA gymnastics violated. Don’t you feel you have a responsibility to the athletes who are here today and to others around the country, more than 2,260 of them, to be more forthcoming?
The biggest revelation in this line of questioning is that the Senators have documents that prove Penny had reasons to be concerned about Nassar’s behavior dating back to 2013.
But Penny wasn’t willing to talk about these documents. Nor was he willing to provide answers to the seven survivors of sexual abuse by Nassar who were sitting in the audience. His priority on this day was to protect himself.
Thankfully, Penny wasn’t the only witness present on Tuesday. Former Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon, who also had to be subpoenaed in order to appear in front of the committee, did remain to answer question, as did former USA Gymnastics Women’s Program Director Rhonda Faehn.
Faehn, the only witness at Tuesday’s hearing whose presence wasn’t compelled by a subpoena, was the most forthcoming participant in the hearing. She was fired just a few weeks ago from USA Gymnastics, and decided to provide an in-depth look at how the allegations against Nassar were handled by USAG in the summer of 2015.
She repeatedly reiterated that when a coach came to her with concerns about Nassar, she reported it to Penny, her boss at the time, as required by the law.
“I was told by Penny not to say anything to anyone for fear of possibly impending the investigation of Nassar,” she wrote in her testimony.