Troubling report on Coast Guard Academy demands congressional response

In any institution, individuals need to know they can come forward with concerns about improper conduct — be it fiscal, discriminatory or sexual — without fear they will be retaliated against for speaking up.

Without such assurances, people will remain silent and inappropriate behavior can escape detection, hurting morale, sapping an organization’s effectiveness and potentially leading to more serious problems.

A recently disclosed Office of Inspector General report documents that leadership at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and at headquarters failed to protect a black female officer and instructor who had blown the whistle on what she considered discriminatory behavior and the retaliatory actions she faced for speaking up about it.

The Coast Guard’s inexcusable handling of this matter comes at a time when it faces a congressional inquiry and a broader inspector general review into reports of harassing, bullying and discriminatory behavior against minority cadets.

Second District Rep. Joe Courtney, the Democrat who represents this region in Congress, joined two other congressmen last summer in requesting all documents, reports or other records involving such alleged or documented behavior at the academy in New London. Also asking for the information on potential racial bias were Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Both are Democrats.

The congressmen have not been satisfied with the Coast Guard’s response, calling the information incomplete. All three will hold powerful positions when the Democrats take majority control of the Congress in 2019. Thompson will head the House Homeland Security Committee. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Cummings will chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Courtney is expected to chair the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

It is time for a full congressional hearing and investigation — most likely in the Homeland Security Committee — to get at the core and extent of the academy’s problem.

Congress can start by demanding greater transparency and accountability. The recent inspector general report, which concluded that the officer received low marks in her annual evaluation report in May 2016 in retaliation for her whistleblower activity, is filled with name redactions. While it is appropriate to protect the name of the complainant, the justification for blocking out the name of every admiral and other superior officer involved in the mishandling of the matter escapes us.

And this went high into the chain of command, to Coast Guard headquarters, with an officer only identified as “HQ Admiral 1” in February 2017 appointing a staff attorney, also not named, to examine what the heck was going on with this case at the academy.

“The evidence presented, when reviewed as a whole, creates a picture of offensive conduct towards (Complainant) that is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive,” wrote the attorney when he reported back to the admiral in May.

“Further, the evidence demonstrates (Complainant) experienced some bullying behaviors in the form of work interference, undermining performance, or damage to her reputation. As required by (the U.S. Coast Guard Civil Rights Manual) and (the Coast Guard Hazing and Bullying Policy), such behaviors may not be allowed to continue,” the attorney further reported.

Yet no one was held accountable.

The admiral’s initial plan was make it go away, the inspector general found — either transfer the complainant or “negotiate a resolution agreement and encourage the transfer of Complainant as part of that agreement.”

Oh, by the way, the lawyer had also told the admiral, speaking of the complainant, that the “picture that has evolved is of an officer and instructor who is extremely dedicated to the cadets.”

Ultimately, the admiral told the IG, he concluded it was best to send the matter back to the academy brass to handle.

“Given that Complainant had been making allegations about her work environment to Academy leadership since 2015, HQ Admirial 1’s rationale for delegating the decision back to the Academy is weak,” the inspector general states.

The Coast Guard repeatedly missed opportunities to deal forthrightly with the situation. An earlier investigator had recommended that because the allegations of misconduct toward the black female officer were complex and substantive a full administrative investigation was warranted, conducted by someone expert in equal employment opportunity and civil rights matters.

Instead academy leadership responded with a superficial “climate and culture investigation” that only exacerbated the pressure and intimidation the whistleblower was facing, the inspector general found.

Congress must demand answers.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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