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Blumenthal: Coast Guard sex assault reports are ‘persistent’ issue

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan speaks with Chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2024 in Washington, DC. Fagan is testified after Shannon Norenberg, the Coast Guard Academy's sexual assault response coordinator, resigned Sunday and released a statement alleging she was used to lie and discourage victims of sexual assault from coming forward during a coverup of a report known as "Operation Fouled Anchor."
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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan speaks with Chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2024 in Washington, DC. Fagan is testified after Shannon Norenberg, the Coast Guard Academy's sexual assault response coordinator, resigned Sunday and released a statement alleging she was used to lie and discourage victims of sexual assault from coming forward during a coverup of a report known as "Operation Fouled Anchor."

As the U.S. Coast Guard seeks to grapple with the fallout of a once-hidden investigation about decades-old sexual assault allegations, federal lawmakers argued that the controversy is not a thing of the past as they questioned Commandant Linda Fagan on Tuesday about Operation Fouled Anchor and the current handling of misconduct reports.

At a hearing, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that the Coast Guard faces a “present, ongoing and persistent” problem related to claims of sexual harassment and assault. He has said the subcommittee he leads has heard from dozens of whistleblowers and victims since it started its investigation last year.

And in recent weeks, there has been growing attention as more survivors who attended the Coast Guard Academy in New London as well as those who are enlisted have been sharing their stories online.

That includes an anonymous Facebook post sharing an email that was scrubbed from Coast Guard servers about sexual misconduct claims. Survivors also filmed videos recounting their stories as part of a series through the Sexual Assault Prevention, Response, and Recovery Program. An April Coast Guard memo questioned whether posting them would “exacerbate the narrative that the Coast Guard is in a sexual assault crisis now.”

Blumenthal and other senators on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations pressed Fagan about why the Coast Guard has been slow to produce documents requested by Congress and if it has held any leaders accountable who were involved in concealing the six-year investigation into sexual assaults at the Coast Guard Academy.

“Nearly six months ago, when we began this investigation, we were assured that the problem of sexual assault in the Coast Guard was a thing of the past — that mishandling of problems of sexual assault and harassment were over, and that cooperation would be full and complete. Unfortunately, we have found the opposite to be true,” Blumenthal said.

“These statements reflect a broken culture — not at some point in the past, but again, right now in the present,” he continued. “I hope that we can begin a different era in the Coast Guard. But it will take facing the truth and disclosing it.”

Fagan’s testimony got heightened attention with the damning new allegations from whistleblower Shannon Norenberg, a Coast Guard Academy official who said she is resigning from her role as sexual assault response coordinator and claimed the service “used me to lie to victims” about Fouled Anchor.

The hearing room was packed with attendees, including a number of survivors and whistleblowers like Norenberg. At one point in the hearing, Blumenthal noted her attendance and asked if Fagan would like to address her. Fagan called Norenberg a “great employee” and noted her work as an advocate for sexual assault survivors.

Fagan said she had not read Norenberg’s detailed statement about her time working at the Coast Guard Academy but was aware of reports about it. She said Norenberg’s allegations will be included in the ongoing investigation conducted by the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Blumenthal pressed Fagan about the part of Norenberg’s account that Fouled Anchor victims were not offered CG-6095 forms, which is the formal way of reporting sexual misconduct and would allow them to more easily access services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs related to military sexual trauma. Fagan said when the DHS investigation wraps up, she will make sure any victims have access to veterans benefits.

When asked about whether she has taken certain actions in the wake of Fouled Anchor, Fagan repeatedly pointed to the open inspector general’s investigation.

She said they have worked to implement changes within the Coast Guard, like a safe-to-report policy for victims who fear punishment for minor, unrelated infractions while reporting sexual misconduct. And she said she has met with a number of victims.

“I cannot change the past, but as the commandant today, I reaffirm to our workforce past and present that I remain steadfast in my commitment to making lasting cultural change,” Fagan said.

Fagan first testified before Congress nearly a year ago after CNN broke the news of Fouled Anchor. In that hearing last July, Fagan apologized before a different Senate committee about the Coast Guard’s inaction and failure to disclose to Congress.

Adm. Karl Schultz served as head of the Coast Guard from 2018 to 2022, during which time Fouled Anchor was underway and concluded. Fagan took the helm in June 2022. She previously told Congress she knew of the investigation generally but became aware of the “totality” of the investigation only when CNN started asking questions.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Fagan gave a more detailed answer with dates. She testified she first learned of Fouled Anchor in the fall of 2018 when senior leaders were briefed. She said she was aware of the investigation in “general terms” at that time but testified she did not know the “full extent” of the number of victims until the summer of 2023.

Fagan, who reports to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, said she has discussed Fouled Anchor with him on a few occasions. The Department of Homeland Security oversees the Coast Guard, while other military branches report to the Department of Defense.

When asked if she knew who made the decision to withhold Fouled Anchor, Fagan said she was unsure. She gave the same answer when asked if her predecessor, Schultz, made the call to not disclose the report to Congress when it concluded in 2020.

“The reality is we did not disclose,” she said.

Members said they have been unsatisfied about the Coast Guard’s response to requests for documents, which became a major point of contention during the hearing. They noted the “document dump” of hundreds of records sent to them a day before the hearing. And they raised issues about redactions in many of the records.

In an interview before the hearing, Blumenthal said he was likely to ask Fagan to come back to testify because of the “continuing discovery of relevant information in these documents that they’ve delayed disclosing.”

Fagan said her team has been working to locate all of the documents and produce them to Congress. Blumenthal and Ranking Member Ron Johnson, R-Wis., countered that they have not received them all and many are redacted or duplicates.

“This is not full transparency,” Johnson said, claiming that Fagan was using the open investigation as “an excuse” when answering questions. “I view this as a coverup.”

Fagan pushed back on that assessment, saying, “This is not a coverup. I’m committed to providing documents in good faith.”

Lawmakers also questioned Fagan on whether the Coast Guard has taken any actions regarding survivors who have faced retaliation for reporting allegations or leadership who played a role in keeping Operation Fouled Anchor hidden. She said she is waiting on the conclusion of the inspector general’s investigation, which she added “will provide insights into whether non-criminal misconduct occurred or not.”

Fagan said she was not aware of any officer who was guilty of retaliation. And when asked if there is enough information already available to reprimand those who hid Fouled Anchor, she responded, “At this point, I don’t have any direct evidence of misconduct.”

That prompted an incredulous response from Blumenthal, “Really?”

“We failed to disclose the Fouled Anchor report to Congress. That was a mistake,” Fagan said. “I can’t go back and change that. I remain committed to moving the organization ahead.”

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.

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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