USA Gymnastics’ lobbying expenditures surged during height of sex abuse scandal, tax records show – Center for Responsive Politics

(Photo by Saul Loeb – Pool/Getty Images)

USA Gymnastics, which received widespread condemnation for its handling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal in a Senate hearing earlier this month, spent more money on lobbying activities between 2016 and 2019, years during which the organization received national scrutiny after the abuse scandal broke in 2015.

In total, the organization spent $104,215 on lobbying activities between 2009 and 2019, according to a review of tax filings. 

“We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at FBI, [USA Gymnastics] or the [United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee] did what was necessary to protect us,” Olympic gymnast Simone Biles said at the hearing. “We have been failed, and we deserve answers.”

While it’s unclear what — if any — pieces of legislation the organization has lobbied for, between 2016 and 2019 USA Gymnastics listed engaging with an unnamed legal firm “to consult on legislative matters or developments that specifically could have an impact on the operations” of the organization. The last year of publicly available tax records in 2019.

The organization reported no lobbying expenditures on its tax filings between 2010 and 2015.

In 2017, Congress introduced and later passed the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act, which established the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a body that reviews allegations of sexual misconduct in youth sports and can levy sanctions against people involved in Olympic sports. 

That year, USA Gymnastics reported spending $48,000 on lobbying to the IRS, more than any other year on record. The IRS has a broad definition of lobbying expenditures, so expenses reported on tax filings are not always reported under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act or at the state level.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), was a direct response to the Nassar sex abuse scandal and allegations of misconduct in USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo.

“This legislation makes institutional changes within the U.S. Olympic movement and sets stringent new criminal reporting requirements to protect young athletes from sexual abuse,” Thune said in a statement about the bill’s passage.

USA Gymnastics did not respond to OpenSecrets’ request for comment. 

At the state level, USA Gymnastics made efforts to lobby on legislation that could affect the operations of gymnastics facilities. 

In 2009, the only other year that USA Gymnastics reported lobbying expenditures on its tax records, the organization spent $10,615. The money went toward lobbying a Texas bill that would categorize independent gymnastics clubs as “child care facilities,” which USA Gymnastics said would subject those facilities to unnecessary regulation, according to the tax filings

The legislation would have required gymnastics and other sports facilities that provide training for young athletes to obtain a child care license from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. 

USA Gymnastics and gym owners argued that most gymnastics facilities would not be able to meet the licensing requirements because, among other issues, gymnastics equipment such as the uneven bars and balance beams would be considered unsafe climbing structures. 

“We are not, and we will never be child care, and if this happens this would be the end of this sport,” co-owner of World Olympics Gymnastics Academy Yezgeni Marchenko told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth in 2009. “We are concerned about the children’s safety, but we are not child care.”

The lobbying efforts appeared to pay off. In a 2009 issue of the Technique Magazine, a publication by USA Gymnastics, the organization’s then-president Steve Penny wrote that the lobbying resulted in amendments to the legislation, which exempted gymnastics facilities from being classified as child care facilities. 

Penny was a key figure in the sexual abuse scandal and resigned from his position in 2017 before being arrested in 2019 on charges of tampering with evidence related to the Nassar investigation.

Exempting gyms from being classified as a child care facility appeared to be a legislative goal of USA Gymnastics in multiple states. Numerous powerpoint slides published on USA Gymnastics’ website provide information and tips on how independent gymnastics facilities can engage in grassroots lobbying at the state level to fight against child care licensing requirements. 

A 2018 powerpoint slide titled “STRENGTH in Numbers: Tools to Protect Your Gymnastics Business from Government,” references the federal SafeSports act and notes that “states can expand” on federal regulations.

The slides provide specific tips on lobbying and navigating child care laws in Florida, New Jersey and Illinois

In California, USA Gymnastics reported spending $32,671 on lobbying between 2017 and 2020 The money went to the California lobbying firm Wilke, Fleury, Hoffelt, Gould & Birney. It’s unclear what specific legislation the firm lobbied.

John Valencia, a partner at the firm and author of the powerpoint slides, did not respond to a request for comment.

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