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Sen. Murphy seeks accountability from Coast Guard in spending bill

The Coast Guard Academy Class of 2022 swears-in at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.
Paul Duddy
U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Academy Class of 2022 swears-in at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Congress is looking to ramp up the pressure on the Coast Guard and get more clarity about why an extensive investigation into decades of sexual assault allegations at its New London academy went unreported for years.

One proposal by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would demand further accountability and apply new disclosure standards to Congress through the enactment of spending bills that fund the federal government and the agency that oversees the Coast Guard.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Murphy plays a key role in crafting the service’s budget for fiscal year 2024. And he has been pressing for more transparency from the Coast Guard for years on allegations surrounding sexual assault and racial discrimination.

Those concerns came to a head late last month amid CNN’s report on “Operation Fouled Anchor.” That investigation found dozens of substantiated incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment took place at the Coast Guard Academy between 1988 and 2006, and that many of those cases were not handled properly.

Since then, federal lawmakers in both parties have relayed serious concerns about the culture at the Academy and why allegations were ignored or not prosecuted. They are also asking why the investigation — which examined the allegations from 2014 to 2020 — was hidden from Congress until the news report.

Murphy inserted language requiring the commandant of the Coast Guard to submit a report to his committee 90 days after the enactment of the spending bill. It would include the timeline of approvals about the report on Fouled Anchor, detailed information on the decision to withhold information from Congress and all materials related to allegations of sexual abuse that have not been provided to Congress.

Since Fouled Anchor only looked into allegations at the Academy up until the mid-2000s, Murphy’s measure would also prompt the commandant to direct the Coast Guard Investigative Service to look into any allegations from 2006 until the present that had not previously been investigated.

Under this new provision, the Coast Guard would need to submit findings from future investigations to Congress one business day after its approval by leadership.

“My sense is there has been a serious culture problem at the academy. Unfortunately, this is not unfamiliar on college campuses, nor is it unfamiliar inside the U.S. military. What I have picked up on over the years is an explaining-away of racial discrimination and sexual assault at the Coast Guard,” Murphy said in an interview earlier this month.

“They have assured me over the years that they’ve made those changes,” he added. “This makes me reconsider and doubt every promise and commitment they’ve made to me, because they clearly were sitting on an explosive report that confirmed all the worst fears people had about the culture, and they buried it intentionally.”

Murphy’s addition to the legislation saw a boost of momentum on Thursday as the full Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Homeland Security FY24 bill. More broadly, the legislation includes $11.5 billion in funding for various functions within the Coast Guard.

But it will not go into effect unless Congress passes its appropriations bills. Funding runs out at the end of September, but lawmakers could delay it by passing a short-term bill to keep the government running at current levels. That would punt the new spending bills — and the language regarding the Coast Guard — until a later date.

Murphy’s approach comes as Congress finds other ways to create more transparency within the Coast Guard.

At a mid-July hearing where Adm. Linda Fagan publicly testified, Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she is calling for an inspector general investigation into the matter.

“I’m going to ask for an IG investigation so we can get to the bottom of all the problems that have occurred here,” Cantwell said at the hearing. “We’re going to get [a] third party involved here to make sure we have the oversight, the evaluation, and the Congress has transparency into the situation.”

Fagan, the commandant of the Coast Guard, took responsibility for the past failures and apologized for the decades of inaction at the academy in Connecticut and for the nondisclosure to Congress for several years.

At the hearing, Fagan said she did not fully understand why the investigation remained hidden for several years after its completion. She said she knew of the investigation generally but that she only became aware of its full scope when CNN started asking questions.

Fagan took the helm in the summer of 2022 a couple of years after the investigation wrapped but has been part of Coast Guard leadership in other capacities for years, including more recently as vice commandant from 2021 to 2022.

In response to the allegations and the cover-up, she said she started a 90-day review of accountability and transparency that will be led by a flag officer “to ensure we have a culture where everyone is safe and valued.” She also noted that behavioral health services have been offered to victims. And to align with other military branches, the Coast Guard will establish a new special prosecutor.

“I’m committed to improving our prevention efforts, prompt and thorough investigations into reports of sexual assault and harassment, accountability for perpetrators, compassionate support to victims and full transparency with Congress and the American people,” Fagan said at the Commerce Committee hearing.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Murphy’s push in the appropriations bill.

CT Mirror staff writer Andrew Brown contributed to this report.

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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