More than 120 victims of sex abuse by Larry Nassar called for the Justice Department on Wednesday to release its inspector general's report into the FBI's handling of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal.
Their demand, sent in a letter to the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, the FBI and ranking members of Congress, comes on the fifth anniversary of the day a gymnast’s alleged abuse was first reported to USA Gymnastics and two years after the inspector general's investigation into the FBI inquiry was opened.
Questions remain about institutional failures at the FBI that enabled Larry Nassar, the doctor for the U.S. national gymnastics team, to abuse dozens of additional victims in the year and a half between the FBI's first learning of allegations against him in 2015 and his arrest. USA Gymnastics is the governing body of the national team.
Nassar, who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 10 minors in a Michigan court in January 2018, is serving up to 175 years in prison and is expected to be behind bars for the rest of his life.
People familiar with the inspector general's investigation were told by the office's lead investigator that the report on the FBI's inquiry was referred to the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in 2018. A source told NBC News that the lead investigator said the matter was now a "criminal investigation."
Typically, such a referral to the Public Integrity Section would be made at the end of an administrative inquiry when a report was complete, according to a former Justice Department official.
The report has never been released.
"Why is the Justice Department sitting on this report?" asks the letter, which was reviewed by NBC News. "We do not want it withheld and then have authorities claim they cannot indict and prosecute the people involved in criminal conduct because the statute of limitations has expired."
"It is important for our healing for all the facts to come out and for wrongdoers to be held accountable. It is also important to maintain public confidence in our federal law enforcement agencies by exposing the truth and initiating reforms so that this never happens again," the victims wrote. The letter is signed by Olympic athletes including Simone Biles and Aly Raisman.
Stephanie Logan, spokesperson for the inspector general's office, said: "The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General is investigating the allegations concerning the FBI's handling of the Nassar investigation, and the victims and the public should rest assured our findings will be made public at the end of our investigation." Logan declined to comment on specific questions about a criminal referral to the Public Integrity Section.
The FBI declined a request for comment.
The FBI opened an investigation into Nassar in July 2015 after it received credible reports of allegations of sexual abuse of three U.S. national team gymnasts — Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols.
Throughout the fall of 2015, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Indianapolis office kept in regular contact with executives at USA Gymnastics, according to emails viewed by NBC News.
But no significant action was taken, and the FBI waited almost a year before conducting any in-person interviews with victims or other key witnesses.
Raisman was not contacted until 15 months after her abuse was first reported. She described the meeting in a 2018 interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC News. "I said, 'Why did you wait so long?'" Raisman recalled. "They said, 'Oh, we wanted to wait until the Olympics were over.'"
During the yearlong gap in the FBI's investigation, Nassar continued to operate freely and was in regular contact with children in Michigan. He even ran for the school board in fall 2016. Dozens of young athletes said Nassar abused them in the period between the first report to the FBI in July 2015 and his arrest by local authorities in November 2016.
"It's extremely hard to even process," Nichols told NBC News. Nichols was the first victim to disclose Nassar's abuse to USA Gymnastics in June 2015. She was not contacted by the FBI until almost a year later. "Just knowing that if someone reported it and made a change right when it was reported, so many people would have been saved. ... Everyone should be held accountable."
Public pressure for justice for the hundreds of Nassar victims has mounted as the fifth anniversary of the FBI referral has approached. On Monday, victims suing USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee filed a motion protesting that certain executives with knowledge of what happened are trying to avoid having to testify.
In a statement, the U.S. Olympic Committee said, "Five years ago, Larry Nassar's despicable crimes were first reported to the FBI. Tragically, his terrible acts took too long to uncover. The USOPC commissioned a comprehensive, independent investigation — shared publicly and without edits — to find out what went wrong and what could have been done better. In the time since, under new leadership, we have implemented significant reforms to prevent such reprehensible acts from ever occurring again. That time and those crimes will never be forgotten and our hearts ache for the victims of Nassar’s abuse.”
USA Gymnastics told NBC News in a statement that "USA Gymnastics has fully cooperated with multiple independent investigations led by several congressional committees, law enforcement, and other investigatory bodies; and we will continue to cooperate. We are deeply committed to learning from these investigations, so that we can better protect athletes in the future. As part of that commitment, we would support the release of the OIG investigation."
On June 2, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, sent a letter asking the inspector general's office to release its report. In an interview, he said Congress would use all available options to compel the inspector general's office and the FBI to explain what went wrong.
"I'm determined to get to the bottom of it," Cornyn said. "I would like to know who told them to wait, because ordinarily when there's been a crime committed, which there are multiple crimes here, you want to get the information quickly as possible."
Cornyn said he has yet to receive a response.
The 2018 referral of the inspector general's investigation to the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section indicates that a decision about potential criminality was needed, said NBC News national security contributor Frank Figliuzzi, the FBI's former assistant director for counterintelligence. "That kind of referral implies that there may be a corruption concern."
The Justice Department investigates potential corruption when it is related to government employees and elected officials.
"OIG investigations are common," Figliuzzi said, "but what is uncommon is that this investigation could have been referred to a number of places. That it has been referred to the Public Integrity Section — that in itself is significant."
Last year, a congressional report found that the FBI fundamentally failed to act and "did not stop Nassar from seeing patients or protect those in harm's way" as the bureau's investigation "dragged on" for more than a year while it was shuffled among field offices. In an interview in July 2019, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee that oversaw the investigation, described the actions of the FBI and other organizations as a "cover-up."
"Whether it was a criminal cover-up remains to be proven, but it was a cover-up in spirit," he said.
Adiel Kaplan contributed to reporting of this story.