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Six former wrestlers say Rep. Jim Jordan knew about abusive OSU doctor

(CNN) Tito Vazquez says he still remembers the day three decades ago when, as a wrestler at Ohio State University, the doctor he'd gone to see about a bloody nose insisted on examining his genitals. He also recalls how one of his coaches dismissed his immediate complaint.

"'I have nothing to do with this,'" Vazquez quoted the assistant coach saying, as he effectively ended the conversation and went on with wrestling practice.

That coach, Vazquez says, was Jim Jordan, now an Ohio congressman and an influential voice in Republican politics, perhaps best known for his pugnacious defense of President Donald Trump during the recent impeachment proceedings.

Vazquez is one of six former OSU wrestlers who told CNN in recent interviews that they were present when Jordan heard or responded to sexual misconduct complaints about team doctor Richard Strauss. Eight others say Strauss' inappropriate behavior was an open secret in the athletic department and that Jordan, among others, must have known about it.

What Jordan and other coaches knew, and when they knew it, has been under scrutiny since 2018, when OSU announced an investigation into the allegations against Strauss. An independent report commissioned by the university concluded last year that Strauss "sexually abused at least 177 male student-patients" between 1979 and 1998. The doctor died by suicide in 2005.

A number of lawsuits have been filed against OSU over allegations related to Strauss. On Friday, OSU announced that it reached a monetary settlement with Strauss' victims in 11 out of 18 pending cases.

Since the scandal emerged, Jordan has emphatically denied that he knew anything about Strauss' abuse during his own years working at OSU, between 1987 and 1995. "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 congressional office said in 2018.

Former OSU wrestler Tito Vazquez says he told then assistant coach Jim Jordan, now a congressman, that team doctor Richard Strauss groped him during an exam.

His campaign went so far as to hire a public relations firm to push back on the allegations.

But Vazquez, for one, doesn't believe Jordan's claims. "When these complaints come and he pretends now that he had no knowledge of it, that's betrayal in the highest level," said Vazquez, now a public school teacher, who added that the continued denials played a role in prompting him to speak out about his experience.

The OSU-commissioned report did not reach conclusions regarding each coach's knowledge of Strauss' abuse, but it did note that "numerous" student-athletes said they "talked about Strauss' inappropriate genital exams and complained about Strauss' locker room and shower room voyeurism, directly to—or in front of—OSU coaching staff." The report stated that 22 coaches -- unnamed in the report -- said they were aware of rumors or complaints about Strauss.

Since the release of that report, additional former student-athletes have come forward to publicly testify at the Ohio statehouse about Strauss' abuse. The state House of Representatives is considering a bill that would lift the statute of limitations for Strauss' victims and clear the way for them to sue OSU.

In an interview with CNN last week, Jordan again denied having prior knowledge of any abuse by Strauss and said he found it interesting that more former student-athletes have spoken out given the possibility of OSU paying them settlement money.

"The idea that I wouldn't stand up for these athletes is ridiculous," Jordan said. "I feel sorry for these guys, the fact that they aren't telling the truth. I mean these are guys I trained with, these are guys I worked out with, I ran with, wrestled with, and the idea that now they are saying what they are, it's just not true."

Former OSU wrestlers say Jordan knew of abuse

Multiple former OSU athletes told CNN they found Jordan's denials puzzling, because they say they distinctly remember him responding to complaints about Strauss.

One former wrestler, Dan Ritchie, said he remembers a teammate complained about Strauss and that Jordan said, "If he ever tried that with me I'd snap his neck like a stick of dry balsa wood."

A contemporary photo of Jordan as OSU assistant wrestling coach.

Ritchie said Strauss' behavior was an ongoing, uncomfortable joke among athletes.

He said Strauss tried to "groom" students to accept the inappropriate nature of the examinations, which became increasingly abusive over time. Ritchie said he ultimately quit the team because of Strauss' behavior.

"When we heard Jim say he wasn't aware, everyone just thought, 'Are you kidding?'" Ritchie said. "I like Jimmy, but I think he took the wrong stance off the get go and now he can't backtrack."

Another former wrestler, Mike Flusche, told CNN that he also remembers Jordan responding to a complaint about Strauss by saying he would break the doctor's neck if he ever tried something similar on him.

"It's weird to play back something in your mind that you remember and have someone say it's not true," Flusche said.

Dunyasha Yetts said he first raised concerns about Strauss with Jordan and the head coach of the team at the time, Russ Hellickson, in 1992, after Yetts transferred to wrestle for OSU from Purdue University. He said he was shocked when Strauss groped him during his initial physical exam. According to Yetts, he told both coaches he was uncomfortable. "I even told them that if I had to go through this again, I'm not staying here," Yetts told CNN.

Former wrestler Dunyasha Yetts says he immediately complained to Jordan when the doctor attempted to remove his shorts during an exam for a thumb injury.

In January 1993, Yetts said, he went to Strauss after he injured his thumb in practice. During the examination, the doctor tried to remove his wrestling shorts.

"I said, 'Doc, it's my damn thumb.' So I literally got up off the table, turned around and busted through the door," Yetts said.

Yetts said he came out and complained to Jordan and other wrestlers about what happened. He said Jordan responded by saying something like, "If he tried that on me, I would kill him."

Two former wrestlers, Shawn Dailey and Mike Glane, told CNN they remember witnessing Yetts complain about Strauss' behavior immediately after the incident, in the presence of Jordan.

NBC News first reported the description of that event from Yetts, who has had his credibility questioned by Jordan supporters because he served 18 months in prison for fraud. Yetts said he made a mistake, did his time and has moved on.

In a lawsuit filed last year, a wrestling referee alleged Strauss masturbated in front of him inside a locker-room shower in the mid-1990s, and that when he reported the incident to then-coaches Jordan and Hellickson, they responded, "Yeah, that's Strauss," and did not take further action. Neither Jordan nor Hellickson was named as a defendant in the suit.

Hellickson told CNN in 2018 that he had had a discussion with Strauss about his physical contact with the wrestlers, and told Strauss that wrestlers were uncomfortable showering with the doctor. He also defended Jordan and said Jordan may not have known about the alleged abuse.

Yet despite that earlier statement, Hellickson told CNN in a recent interview, "I learned of Dr. Strauss' abuse two years ago. No one on any team ever told me a thing about being abused by Dr. Strauss."

Hellickson and five former OSU assistant coaches who worked with Jordan previously issued a joint statement that said, "None of us saw or heard of abuse of OSU wrestlers. The well-being of student-athletes was all of our concern. If we had heard of any abuse, we would have spoken up."

Jordan pushed back on allegations

When allegations about what Jordan knew regarding Strauss first surfaced two years ago, the Ohio lawmaker actively disputed the accusations.

His campaign turned to the PR company Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which distributed statements on the matter and set up a website presenting support for Jordan.

Jordan's campaign paid the firm about $95,000 in 2018, according to campaign finance records.

The firm's founder, Craig Shirley, initially told CNN his firm did not provide services to the Jordan campaign unrelated to the Strauss matter, but later said that the firm also worked on "other things" for the campaign, though he did not provide detail.

Former OSU wrestler Adam DiSabato told Ohio state legislators in February that Jordan called him in 2018 and asked him to contradict statements by his brother, who had publicly alleged Jordan knew about Strauss' abuse when he worked for the university.

"Jim Jordan called me crying, crying. Groveling. On the 4th of July, begging me to go against my brother. Begging me. Crying for a half hour. That's the kind of cover-ups that's going on there," DiSabato told legislators.

Jordan, left, reiterated to CNN's Drew Griffin that he knew nothing of his wrestling team members' abuse by Dr. Richard Strauss.

Another former OSU wrestler, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told CNN that Jordan called him on July 6, 2018. The former wrestler said he had the impression Jordan wanted him to speak out on his behalf and wanted to know more about ongoing discussions among former members of the wrestling team, though he said he never issued any statement about Jordan.

Rick Burlenski, another former OSU wrestler, said Jordan also called him in July 2018 and thanked him, after Burlenski told POLITICO that he "never had an issue with Dr. Strauss" and said of OSU coaches at the time, "If there was an issue, I would have thought those guys would have handled it."

Burlenski said in an interview with CNN that upon further reflection, he has realized that Strauss' examinations of him and other wrestlers were inappropriate.

"When I got the first phone call from a reporter in 2018, I made everything sound like it was hunky-dory and I thought it was going to go away, but then I heard the extent of it," Burlenski said. "It's mind-boggling. It should have been stopped before it got to us."

Burlenski said he doesn't know whether Jordan, whom he described as a supportive coach, would have known about the abuse, though he said he remembers upperclassmen openly teasing incoming athletes about Strauss' examinations, as if they were a hazing ritual.

"I would guess that, realistically, if you're on the coaching staff you would know something about it, but whether they heard specifics and were more directly involved, that's another question," Burlenski said.

Not all former OSU wrestlers agree on the severity of Strauss' abuse or the extent to which it was discussed within the team. A handful who spoke to CNN said they have no knowledge of Jordan hearing about the issue.

"Did [Strauss] molest some of the athletes? Sure. Was it as rampant as people make it out to be? No," said former OSU wrestler George Pardos, who added he never experienced any abuse by Strauss.

Mike Alf, an OSU wrestler from 1988 to 1992, previously told CNN there's no way Jordan would have known about the abuse and not intervened.

"I know Jim Jordan," Alf said. "He would do anything to protect us."

OSU accused of concealing Strauss' abuse

OSU ultimately suspended Strauss in 1996 after a patient accused him of fondling him during an exam, but according to the OSU-commissioned report, university personnel had knowledge of the doctor's abuse as early as 1979. Strauss voluntarily retired in 1998.

Among the lawsuits filed against OSU over the Strauss allegations was one brought by Yetts and other former wrestlers who allege university personnel "added, abetted, and/or concealed Dr. Strauss' sexual predation." That suit was not among the group of settlements that OSU announced on Friday.

The suit involving Yetts also argues the university failed to protect students from voyeurism and other harassment that occurred within their locker room and shower facility, which was open to the general OSU population.

OSU and victims of Strauss have been involved in a mediation process, but attorneys for plaintiffs in four lawsuits recently asked a federal judge to allow litigation to resume because "OSU has refused to engage in productive settlements talks," according to a letter they filed in court.

An OSU spokesperson, Ben Johnson, said the university is actively participating in a good-faith mediation process.

"Ohio State has led the effort to investigate and expose Richard Strauss' abuse and the university's failure at the time to adequately respond to or prevent it. We express our deep regret and apologies to all who experienced Strauss' abuse and remain actively committed to a fair resolution, including a monetary resolution," Johnson said in a statement.

Hunter Shepard, who wrestled for OSU in the mid-90s, said he just wants closure on a dark chapter in his life that continues to haunt him today.

He described Strauss as a consistent presence within the wrestling team. Aside from abusive examinations, he said Strauss would shower with athletes, sit in the sauna with team members and invite them to his house.

Shepard believes that Jordan, along with numerous other university personnel, was aware of Strauss' behavior and should have done more.

"I don't care what your title was, who you were then or where you are now... without a doubt, everyone knew what was going on," Shepard said.

CNN's Evan Simko-Bednarski, Sonia Moghe and Sonnet Swire contributed to this report.