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Protect Coast Guard cadets who report sexual assaults, CT Congress member says

Hats and shoulder boards lay on the ground as 224 newly minted officers leave after the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's 132nd Commencement Ceremony in New London.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Lanola Stone
U.S. Coast Guard Academy
Hats and shoulder boards lay on the ground as 224 newly minted officers leave after the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's 132nd Commencement Ceremony in New London.

For the past couple of years, U.S. military academies have offered protections to cadets and midshipmen who want to report instances of sexual assault or harassment but fear consequences associated with minor infractions — such as drinking or breaking curfew — they may have committed at the same time.

But the Coast Guard is a major exception. And the absence of a similar policy became more glaring for some members of Congress after news of an investigation that looked into decades of sexual assault allegations at the New London academy but went unreported for years.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, now hopes to extend those protections to cadets at the Coast Guard Academy, which is based in his district. He introduced the “Coast Guard Academy Safe-to-Report Parity Act” on Tuesday along with Reps. Trent Kelly, R-Miss.; Rick Larsen, D-Wash.; Salud Carbajal, D-Calif.; and Nanette Díaz Barragán, D-Calif.

The bill would add the Coast Guard Academy to the existing “safe to report” policy that was implemented in 2021 through the annual defense policy bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act. The statue only applied to the Army, Navy and Air Force.

The federal policies were enacted to ensure victims of sexual assaults who come forward are not punished for minor infractions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that might have been committed when the crime took place. Those incidents include underage drinking, substance abuse, violations of curfew or being in areas that are off limits.

But like many of the reforms established by Congress to tackle sexual assault in the military, the legislation excluded the Coast Guard because of jurisdiction issues. Unlike the other service branches, the Coast Guard does not fall under the purview of the Department of Defense and instead reports to the Department of Homeland Security.

“While the Coast Guard has taken many steps to care for victims of sexual assault, this bipartisan legislation prevents cadets from receiving punishment for minor misconduct when reporting sexual assault and harassment,” Courtney said in a statement. “The Department of Defense swiftly implemented this policy change for the other academies after Congress acted in 2021, and now, we must extend these protections to our Coast Guard Academy cadets, too.”

“This is one step in the process to care for our cadets as I continue to engage with Coast Guard leadership on the path forward following its failure to disclose the investigation into its history of sexual assault and harassment at the Coast Guard Academy,” he added.

Members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation and other federal lawmakers have been ramping up their response to the Coast Guard’s failure to disclose the six-year investigation known as “Operation Fouled Anchor,” which wrapped up in 2020.

The investigation found that between the late 1980s and 2006, dozens of substantiated incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment took place at the Academy, and that many of those cases were not handled properly. A CNN story published in June brought those allegations to light, as well as the cover-up of Fouled Anchor.

In addition to Courtney’s new bill, Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard, called for an inspector general investigation into the matter.

Another congressional committee that oversees the Coast Guard’s budget is also seeking accountability. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, wants new disclosure standards to Congress through the enactment of spending bills that fund the federal government.

Murphy inserted language requiring the Coast Guard commandant to submit a report to his committee 90 days after the passage of the spending bill. It would include the timeline of approvals about the report on Fouled Anchor, details on the decision to withhold information 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 have not previously been investigated.

And under Murphy’s new provision, the Coast Guard would need to submit findings from future investigations to Congress one business day after leadership approves it.

Outside of the pressure from Congress, Coast Guard leadership has also voluntarily implemented new policies and procedures since the investigation became public.

Commandant Linda Fagan 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 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, again, apologize to each victim, survivor and their loved ones,” Fagan said at a congressional hearing in July. “We failed to provide the safe environment that every member of the Coast Guard deserves.”

“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,” she added.

Fagan testified before Congress that she did not know the “totality” of Fouled Anchor until CNN started asking questions. She took the helm of the Coast Guard in the summer of 2022, but served in other leadership capacities as the investigation was winding down.

In the months since the news broke, a few current and former officials appear to be implicated.

CNN reported that former Commandant Karl Schultz along with former Vice Commandant Charles Ray concealed the investigation despite plans to share the inquiry’s findings with Congress and the Department of Homeland Security a few years ago. Schultz led the Coast Guard from 2018 to 2022 before Fagan took over.

Ray, who retired in 2021, was working with the Coast Guard Academy’s Loy Institute until recently resigning from that position.

“During the past week, there has been a great deal of public discourse on decisions I was a part of during my last two years of service,” Ray wrote in a letter to the academy’s alumni association, according to The Day of New London. “I fully accept the criticism for my actions and have learned from reflecting on them. By resigning, I hope to reduce the distraction that my presence may bring so the Academy can go forward.”

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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