Lawmakers, Coast Guard head meet about academy concerns

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, May 17, 2016.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, May 17, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, met with the head of the Coast Guard on Thursday to express their concerns over discrimination and harassment complaints at the Coast Guard Academy and the handling of such complaints.

The Connecticut lawmakers requested the meeting, which took place in Murphy's office for about an hour Thursday afternoon. Members of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz's senior staff also were present.

"I think there's increasing, not decreasing, concern about what has been happening at the academy," Murphy said by phone Thursday after the meeting. "It was important for us to talk to him personally about our concerns and what we're hearing from people on the ground."

A recent report put out by the Office of Inspector General, which found that Coast Guard officials failed to protect a black female officer who made discrimination and harassment complaints against her superiors, was the "impetus" for the meeting, Courtney said.

Schultz said in a statement Thursday afternoon that he "welcomed the opportunity" to sit down with the lawmakers.

"The recent IG report has my full attention," he said. "No one in the Coast Guard should ever face bullying, harassment or retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. We will protect whistleblowers. I am working with my senior leadership team, the Coast Guard Academy, and the Department of Homeland Security to address the IG report's findings in an expedient fashion. I am committed to ensuring the Coast Guard is an inclusive organization as we strive to be more representative of the nation we serve."

The lawmakers also spoke with Schultz about their ongoing request for documents related to allegations of bullying and harassment at the academy, and an inspector general review into the academy's handling of allegations of discrimination, and whether it took appropriate action in past cases.

"I'm not convinced the academy has done everything they need to do in order to fundamentally change the culture there," Murphy said.

The lawmakers made suggestions to Schultz on how to address climate issues and concerning culture at the academy, which the Coast Guard plans to respond to at a follow-up meeting in January.

They declined to go into detail on the suggestions, but Murphy said that from his perspective, "If people are found responsible for harassment and retaliation, there needs to be real accountability."

"It's not enough to issue new guidelines or more training; if real wrongdoing occurred, there needs to be accountability," he said.

He said he's concerned about the underlying complaints but also that there be transparency in the Coast Guard's response.

"There's a need for some public accountability and the Coast Guard recognizes that fact," Blumenthal said.

With the Democratic takeover in the U.S. House, two congressmen from outside Connecticut who have stayed atop the issues at the academy are expected to take over leadership of key oversight committees. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi likely will head the House Homeland Security Committee, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland is expected to chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Both Thompson and Cummings are "very intent on having their committees focus on the inspector general report, as well some of other issues that have come up over last couple of years," Courtney said. "The Coast Guard understands that."

j.bergman@theday.com

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