Powerful GOP Rep. accused of turning blind eye to sex abuse at Ohio State
"It's sad for me to hear that he's denying," said one former wrestler. "I don’t know why he would, unless it’s a cover-up."
Rep. Jim Jordan, the powerful Republican congressman from Ohio, is being accused by former wrestlers he coached more than two decades ago at Ohio State University of failing to stop the team doctor from molesting them and other students.
The university announced in April that it was investigating accusations that Dr. Richard Strauss, who died in 2005, abused team members when he was the team doctor from the mid-1970s to late 1990s.
Jordan, who was assistant wrestling coach at the university from 1986 to 1994, has repeatedly said he knew nothing of the abuse until former students began speaking out this spring, and continued to deny it on Tuesday. His denials, however, have been met with skepticism and anger from some former members of the wrestling team.
Three former wrestlers told NBC News that it was common knowledge that Strauss showered regularly with the students and inappropriately touched them during appointments, and said it would have been impossible for Jordan to be unaware; one wrestler said he told Jordan directly about the abuse.
Former head coach Russ Hellickson, Jordan's mentor, said in a recent video — made by Mike DiSabato, a former wrestler — that Hellickson had told Strauss that he was being too "hands on” with students.
DiSabato, whose allegations against Strauss prompted Ohio State to open its investigation, called Jordan a “liar.”
“I considered Jim Jordan a friend,” DiSabato said. “But at the end of the day, he is absolutely lying if he says he doesn’t know what was going on.”
DiSabato said he reached out to Jordan this year, before going to the university, to tell Jordan that he planned to go public with his allegations. Jordan told him to “please leave me out of it,” DiSabato said. “He asked me not to get him involved.”
"At the end of the day, he is absolutely lying if he says he doesn’t know what was going on.”
Dunyasha Yetts, who wrestled at Ohio State in 1993 and 1994, said he and others told Jordan about Strauss.
“I remember I had a thumb injury and went into Strauss’ office and he started pulling down my wrestling shorts,” he said. “I’m like, what the f--- are you doing? And I went out and told Russ and Jim what happened. I was not having it. They went in and talked to Strauss.”
Yetts said he and his teammates talked to Jordan numerous times about Strauss.
“For God’s sake, Strauss’s locker was right next to Jordan’s and Jordan even said he’d kill him if he tried anything with him,” Yetts said.
As for Jordan, Yetts said, “He’s a great guy. We would have all these great talks with him and he talked about how one day he’d be the president of the United States."
"So it’s sad for me to hear that he’s denying knowing about Strauss," he said. "I don’t know why he would, unless it’s a cover-up. Either you’re in on it, or you’re a liar.”
A former teammate of DiSabato’s who asked not to be identified said he never told Jordan directly that Strauss had abused him. But there is no way Jordan could have avoided the rumors “because it was all over the locker room.”
“I love Jimmy to death,” the ex-wrestler said. “It was a head-scratcher to me why he would say he didn’t know anything. Doc used to take showers with the team even though he didn’t do any workouts, and everybody used to snicker about how you go into his office for a sore shoulder and he tells you to take your pants down.”
When the first stories about the university investigation appeared this spring, Jordan told The Columbus Dispatch, “I had not heard about any type of abuse at all.” He also said that “no one reported any type of abuse” to him.
After NBC News reached out to Jordan, the congressman’s spokesman repeated the denial.
“Congressman Jordan never saw any abuse, never heard about any abuse, and never had any abuse reported to him during his time as a coach at Ohio State,” his spokesman, Ian Fury, said in an email to NBC News.
Shortly after the NBC News story was published, Fury added the following statement: "He has not been contacted by investigators about the matter but will assist them in any way they ask, because if what is alleged is true, the victims deserve a full investigation and justice.”
But Kathleen Trafford of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, the Dayton, Ohio-based law firm that was appointed as legal counsel to Ohio State, said in a statement that investigators "had previously contacted Rep. Jordan's office by email and phone to request that he participate in an interview."
"To date, Rep. Jordan has not responded to those requests," Trafford wrote. "The investigative team is continuing its efforts to schedule an interview with Rep. Jordan."
Jordan, a founder of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of the most conservative representatives, is a staunch ally of President Donald Trump and is frequently mentioned as a possible replacement for the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
Ryan, through his spokesman Doug Andres, also weighed in on the Ohio State investigation and Jordan's role.
"These are serious allegations and issues," Andres said. "The university has rightfully initiated a full investigation into the matter. The speaker will await the findings of that inquiry."
DiSabato forwarded to NBC News an email he sent on April 24 to Jordan and the congressman’s brother, Jeff, who runs Jeff Jordan's State Champ Camp, a nationally known wrestling camp in Ohio. DiSabato sent the email 19 days after Ohio State announced on April 5 that it was investigating Strauss and the administrators of the wrestling program at the time, including the coaches, just as other colleges have done in similar circumstances.
DiSabato was concerned that the university would ultimately sweep his allegations under the rug, and he wanted to ensure that Jordan would back him up.
“I ask you to give your full attention to the information attached to this email,” DiSabato wrote. “We [are] watching you. … You have the platform to cut through the double talk, placation and finger pointing.”
Jordan and his brother did not reply to the email, DiSabato said. Jeff Jordan said in an email that he'd never attended or worked at Ohio State University.
Jim Jordan, who has made a name for himself in Congress by grilling investigators probing alleged collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russians, is among the witnesses expected to be questioned by the law firm that Ohio State hired to conduct the probe into Strauss’ misconduct, officials involved with the investigation said.
In the video that DiSabato made about the allegations against Strauss, which DiSabato sent to Ohio State in June, Hellickson, the former head wrestling coach, said he told school administrators about Strauss and also warned the doctor to steer clear of his wrestlers.
“I said, ‘You make the guys nervous when you shower with them,’” Hellickson said in the video. “His response was, ‘Coach, you shower with your guys all the time.’ And I said, ‘Not for an hour, Doc.’”
DiSabato and his former teammates said Jordan and Hellickson were close, and if the head coach had qualms about Strauss he would have shared them with his No. 2.
“Jim was Coach Russ’ right-hand man,” one former wrestler said.
Hellickson, an Olympics silver medalist in wrestling in 1976 who has done commentary from the games for NBC Sports, did not return calls for comment.
In response to a series of questions from NBC, Ohio State emailed a statement saying that the law firm Perkins Coie was overseeing the probe into the Strauss allegations for the university. OSU said it has also reached out “to the Columbus Division of Police and the Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for any potential criminal investigation.”
“To date, Perkins Coie has interviewed more than 150 former students and witnesses and is engaged in further investigative efforts,” the university said in the statement. “Ohio State has shared all additional information that has come to the attention of the university with the independent investigators whose work is ongoing.”
It’s unclear whether former Ohio State coaches or administrators could face any penalties from the university for not protecting wrestlers from Strauss.
“Our efforts will continue to be focused on uncovering what may have happened during this era, what university leaders at the time may have known, and whether any response at the time was appropriate,” the university’s statement said. “Once the independent investigation has been completed, we will be in a position to consider what further action might be appropriate.”
Jordan is wrestling royalty. Born and raised in Champaign County, Ohio, he was a four-time state wrestling champion. Competing for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he won NCAA titles in 1985 and 1986.
But in the wrestling world, Jordan is best known for defeating future two-time Olympic gold medalist John Smith twice in an NCAA tournament in 1985.
Jordan returned home to Ohio and — while working as a coach — earned a master’s degree in education at Ohio State and later a law degree from Capital University in Columbus before launching his political career in 1994 when he was elected to the Ohio General Assembly.
Strauss signed on at Ohio State as an attending physician in September 1978 and served as a team physician in the athletics department from July 1981 to June 1995, according to the university’s statement. He also worked as a part-time doctor in the university’s student health department from July 1994 to August 1996.
After resigning from the Ohio State medical staff in 1994, Strauss stayed on as an emeritus faculty member until he retired in July 1998 and moved from Columbus to Los Angeles, the university said.
Citing Los Angeles County coroner records, The Columbus Dispatch reported that Strauss died of suicide in 2005 after struggling with pain and other health issues.
Strauss’ relatives have not spoken publicly about the allegations since they surfaced. NBC News was not able to reach any of his relatives.
DiSabato, who runs a Columbus-based sports and entertainment agency called the Profectus Group, said the recent conviction of former Olympics gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar prompted him and other Ohio State athletes to come forward about Strauss.
Strauss’ primary job was to give wrestlers physicals, treat them for injuries and monitor their health, DiSabato said. He said Strauss also preyed on students who played other sports.
“Strauss sexually assaulted male athletes in at least fifteen varsity sports during his employment at OSU from 1978 through 1998,” DiSabato wrote in a June 26 email to Kathleen M. Trafford of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, the Columbus-based law firm that represents Ohio State. “Athlete victims include members of the following programs: football, basketball, wrestling, swimming, cheerleading, volleyball, lacrosse, gymnastics, ice hockey, soccer, baseball, tennis, track and cross country.”
Chillingly, DiSabato added: “Based on testimony from victim athletes from each of the aforementioned varsity sports, we estimate that Strauss sexually assaulted and/or raped a minimum of 1,500/2,000 athletes at OSU from 1978 through 1998.”
Ohio State has confirmed that investigators have received “confidential reports of sexual misconduct committed by Strauss” from former athletes in 14 sports and from former patients in Student Health Services.
In the video, DiSabato said Strauss knew that many of the athletes were small-town kids who weren’t likely to protest if the doctor told them to disrobe, for fear of losing their scholarships. He said coaches knew that Strauss was a predator.
“Everybody knew before you were going into the [examination] room that Doc Strauss was going to touch you,” DiSabato said. “It was like a joke before you went in there.”
Strauss wasn’t the only Ohio State official who showered with the team, DiSabato said. After practice ended at 3:30 p.m., some university professors, administrators and others would show up in the shower stalls just as the athletes were arriving, he said.
It was, DiSabato said, like walking through “the gauntlet of sexual deviancy.”
Another former wrestler whose testimony appears on the video DiSabato submitted to investigators described how Strauss grabbed his penis during an examination.
“I didn’t do a thing,” he said when asked how he responded. “Probably, because I was scared.”
He broke down when asked why, after all these years, he was speaking out.
“Why am I doing this now? It’s just hard,” he said. “I don’t want this to ever have to happen to anybody else, ever … at The Ohio State University or any school.”