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FBI opens settlement talks with gymnasts who survived abuse by Larry Nassar

From left: Former U.S. Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney and three-time national champion Jessica Howard participate in a news conference following a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 15, 2021.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
From left: Former U.S. Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney and three-time national champion Jessica Howard participate in a news conference following a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 15, 2021.

Updated July 28, 2022 at 4:27 PM ET

The FBI is opening settlement discussions with survivors of sexual assault by former U.S. gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, according to legal and congressional sources.

News of the outreach came as senior Justice Department officials traveled to Capitol Hill on Thursday to explain their reasons for declining to prosecute two former FBI agents for their failures in the Nassar case.

In a rare step, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite met with key senators and their staff members to explain the Justice Department's legal reasoning — and to offer suggestions for new legislative proposals moving forward.

The Justice Department's inspector general detailed the botched FBI probe of Nassar in a scathing report last year. IG Michael Horowitz said that while the FBI failed to act, Nassar abused dozens more girls and women.

Watchdogs concluded that the bureau "failed to respond to the Nassar allegations with the utmost seriousness and urgency that they deserved and required, made numerous and fundamental errors when they did respond to them, and violated multiple FBI policies."

FBI Director Christopher Wray apologized to the hundreds of survivors in testimony before Congress in September 2021.

"I'm especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed," Wray said. "And that is inexcusable. It never should have happened, and we're doing everything in our power to make sure it never happens again."

Lawyers for many of those survivors — including world class gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman — filed paperwork this year signaling they would sue the bureau.

Maroney told lawmakers that the FBI agent who finally reached out to hear her story failed to properly document her report and made false claims about it.

"My fellow survivors and I were betrayed by every institution that was supposed to protect us — the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, the FBI and now the Department of Justice," she said in a written statement this year.

Under a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act, plaintiffs are required to file administrative complaints with the U.S. government. If the federal government fails to act after six months, those plaintiffs can proceed with a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages.

State officials in Michigan ultimately brought Nassar to justice. He's effectively serving a life sentence on charges including criminal sexual assault and child pornography.

Jamie White, an attorney representing a group of survivors, said he heard from the government Wednesday to start talks to resolve the legal claims.

"My clients have been through extreme trauma and were relieved to see the government is open to a dialogue," White told NPR. "While dialogue is a positive step in the right direction, we remain prepared to hold parties accountable through an adversarial process if necessary."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, took part in the meeting with DOJ officials Thursday. In a written statement, Grassley said he was not satisfied, saying federal officials "refused to provide underlying information to support their assumption that a jury wouldn't convict their agents for botching the Nassar investigation, then trying to cover their tracks," Grassley said. "It's the latest example of the Department of 'Just Us' trying to avoid accountability for its failures."

Grassley said both Assistant Attorney General Polite and FBI Director Wray would be testifying before the Judiciary Committee next week and that he expected them to be asked about the case again then.

An FBI spokeswoman said the FBI didn't participate in the decision to decline prosecution of its former agents, and that it had provided the inspector general and Justice Department with "any relevant materials."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 30, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this story, the last name of the gymnast Simone Biles was misspelled as Byles.
Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.