Politics

Former USA Gymnastics Chief Invokes Fifth Amendment to Avoid Senate Testimony

Comes as senators question tax-exempt status of Olympic sports organizations

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., left, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., spoke with USA Gymnastics sexual abuse survivors before a press conference on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The former president of USA Gymnastics faced questions from senators Tuesday about his role in the sex abuse scandal that plagued his organization, but they were ones Steve Penny did not answer, repeatedly invoking constitutional protections against self-incrimination before being excused from the witness table by Sen. Jerry Moran.

The Kansas Republican is chairman of the consumer protection subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee that has been investigating the inability of Olympic and amateur sports organizations to protect young athletes from abuse.

Before Penny was allowed to leave, ranking member Richard Blumenthal, had a stern warning for Penny and the gymnastics organization at-large about the handling of gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and abuse allegations against him.

“I respect your right to invoke your Fifth Amendment privilege. You have that right, but you also have a responsibility,” Blumenthal said. “You were 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.”

Watch: Former USA Gymnastics President Pleads the Fifth on Abuse Questions

Among the queries from Blumenthal and Moran that Penny did not respond to on the advice of his legal counsel was one about his potential role in a “code of silence” dating back to at least 2014 that tried to keep young athletes from reporting cases of abuse.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire offered statements at the start of the hearing. The two senators have been pushing for the Senate to establish a special committee to investigate gymnastics and other entities associated with the United States Olympic Committee.

“It is clear that USOC is not fulfilling its core mission to support and protect our Olympic athletes and I believe Congress should consider revoking or rewriting USOC’s charter to include more oversight,” said Shaheen. “The new charter should state clearly that any future scandals will result in USOC losing its charter and its tax-exempt status.”

Ernst was similarly critical of the USOC, the gymnastics organization, as well as academic institutions involved.

“This breaks my heart and angers me as these men and women and oftentimes children carry this burden for so many years, with no help from those they trusted,” Ernst said. “Even more maddening is that these organizations rake in millions of dollars a year and enjoy tax-exempt status.”

Moran said he intended to bring the officials who replaced those who testified Tuesday for a subsequent hearing before the subcommittee,

Penny and Lou Anna Simon, the former president of Michigan State University, where Nassar was a physician, appeared pursuant to subpoenas. The third witness present was Rhonda Faehn, the former women’s program director at USA Gymnastics.

Faehn’s opening statement pointed to potential evidence of a cover-up by Penny, saying that as senior vice president, she was quickly made aware of allegations against Nassar, and reported them up the chain-of-command.

“Each time I immediately reported these incidents, I was told by Penny not to say anything to anyone for fear of possibly impeding any investigation of Nassar,” she said. “I was not aware of any delay in contacting authorities or of any efforts to misinform anyone of the reasons for Nassar’s departure from USAG.”

Jeff Cirillo contributed to this report.

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