WASHINGTON — A former Ohio State wrestler has accused Rep. Jim Jordan — one of the most powerful conservatives in Congress — of knowingly ignoring sexual abuse allegations while Jordan was a wrestling coach at Ohio State University.
In April, Ohio State announced it was opening an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against its former wrestling team physician, Dr. Richard Strauss.
Strauss, who served as the team's doctor from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, died in 2005. Jordan, an Ohio Republican first elected to the House in 2006, worked as an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State from 1987 until 1995.
Jordan has been contacted by officials investigating the abuse allegations but he has not yet responded, according to a spokeswoman for the law firm representing Ohio State.
Jordan, a former college wrestling champion, has said he did not know about Strauss's alleged behavior until the doctor's accusers came forward publicly this spring.
But Mike DiSabato, a former Ohio State wrestler, said Strauss's groping of student athletes was widely known at the university. He claimed Jordan was aware. NBC News first reported the allegations from DiSabato and two other former wrestlers.
"Doc Strauss was a serial groper," DiSabato told USA TODAY. "Everyone knew, including Jim."
Ian Fury, a spokesman for Jordan, said the congressman had no knowledge of the alleged abuse and has not been contacted by investigators hired by Ohio State.
“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," Fury said in an email to USA TODAY. "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.”
Part of the university's investigation includes determining if anyone at Ohio State knew about the allegations and should have reported them.
“These are deeply troubling allegations, and we are committed to get to the bottom of this,” Ohio State President Michael Drake said at a recent meeting.
Kathleen M. Trafford, a spokeswoman for the law firm representing Ohio State, said the investigative team had 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,” said Trafford, who works for the firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. The firm was appointed by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to serve as legal counsel for Ohio State.
"We understand from public statements issued on his behalf today that Rep. Jordan is willing to talk to the investigative team," she said. "The investigative team is continuing its efforts to schedule an interview with Rep. Jordan, as well as other individuals with potential knowledge relating to the allegations."
Fury, Jordan's spokesman, said the congressman's office has searched for its records for calls or emails from Porter or other investigators, but has not found any communication seeking Jordan's assistance in the probe.
“Despite claims to the contrary, Congressman Jordan’s office has not received a request for interview from the investigative team. We have demanded that they send us the supposed communication and remain willing to assist in any way that we can,” Fury said.
Porter has hired a second firm, Perkins Coie, to investigate the allegations.
DiSabato and two other ex-wrestlers told NBC it was common knowledge that Strauss showered with the students and inappropriately touched them during appointments. They told NBC it would have been impossible for Jordan to be unaware, and one wrestler said he told Jordan directly about Strauss's abuse.
“I remember I had a thumb injury and went into Strauss’ office and he started pulling down my wrestling shorts,” ex-wrestler Dunyasha Yetts told NBC. “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.”
Russ Hellickson was the head coach at the time. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Moral obligation to talk publicly
DiSabato told USA TODAY he has stayed in regular contact with Jordan since leaving Ohio State, and he believes the congressman has a "moral obligation" to talk publicly about the abuse.
"I understand folks are uncomfortable with sex abuse. But Jim is a leader," he said.
"He’s an elected official (who) represents the state of Ohio and he’s also our former coach," DiSabato added. "And he has a moral obligation, and quite frankly a fiduciary obligation to taxpayers of the state of Ohio, to tell the ... truth."
Asked about Jordan's assertions that he did not know anything, DiSabato responded: "He did know, and he’s lying."
DiSabato told NBC that he contacted Jordan earlier this year to tell the congressman he planned to go public with his allegations.
Jordan told him to "please leave me out of it," DiSabato told NBC. "He asked me not to get him involved."
Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for Ohio State, said the university opened the investigation on April 5, when a former student came forward with allegations of abuse.
The investigation has now expanded far beyond the university’s wrestling team to include athletes who played other sports, as well as people who may have met with Strauss while they were high school students.
“Perkins Coie now has received confidential reports of sexual misconduct committed by Strauss from former varsity men student-athletes in 14 sports and from former patients of Student Health Services within the Office of Student Life,” Johnson said in a statement.
“The sports include baseball, cheerleading, cross country, fencing, football, gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, tennis, track, volleyball and wrestling,” he added. “The Perkins team is also investigating whether, and to what extent, Dr. Strauss may have examined high school-aged students during his time at the university.”
Influential House conservative
Jordan is one of the most vocal and influential conservatives in the House — and he's eyeing a bid for the top GOP leadership slot. He co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, a faction of about 30 ultra-conservative Republicans who often buck the GOP leadership on legislation they see as too moderate.
Jordan was among those who helped to oust former House Speaker John Boehner, a fellow Ohio Republican whom Jordan saw as too eager to compromise with Democrats.
This spring — around the same time the Ohio State investigation began — Jordan said he was interested in running for House speaker to succeed retiring Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. That would mean challenging the current frontrunner for the slot, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican.
“I’ve had colleagues encourage me to consider that and I’m open to that,” Jordan told USA TODAY in mid April.
It's unlikely Jordan could get enough votes to win the speakership himself, but he could get the support of dozens of his hardline colleagues, which could derail McCarthy's bid.
This is not the first time questions have been raised about Jordan's knowledge of improper sexual behavior. Last year, the Washington Post reported that then-Ohio state Rep. Wes Goodman, a one-time aide to Jordan, allegedly fondled an 18-year-old college student at a conservative group's event in Washington.
Goodman later resigned from the state Legislature, after he was accused of "inappropriate behavior" in his office with a man. Goodman worked as an aide to Jordan for several years before running for office himself.
When the allegations emerged, Jordan's spokeswoman at the time, Melika Willoughby, said Jordan's office was unaware of any allegations against Goodman.
"During his employment with our office, we heard no allegations of wrongdoing and received no accusations of misconduct," Willoughby told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2017. "Congressman Jordan is deeply disappointed by this troubling news."
Contributing: Eliza Collins and Jessie Balmert