Report faults Coast Guard Academy for response to harassment, bullying complaints
Washington — The Coast Guard did not properly investigate complaints of harassment and bullying, and failed to hold officials accountable for carrying out deficient and incomplete investigations, two U.S. House committees have found.
The 18-month investigation by the House Oversight and Reform and Homeland Security committees, in consultation with the office of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, involved a review of thousands of pages of documents, interviews with Coast Guard personnel and a visit by congressional staff to the Coast Guard Academy.
The findings of the investigation were released Wednesday and were the focus of a hearing the same day in Washington, held by the Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security.
“The findings of the committees’ joint investigation are now clear: Coast Guard military leadership has failed to promptly, thoroughly and impartially address harassment, bullying and retaliation allegations at the academy. Furthermore, Coast Guard leadership has refused to hold anyone accountable for these failures,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of New York, chairman of the civil rights and liberties subcommittee, in opening the hearing.
Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, ranking member of the civil rights and liberties subcommittee, said Republicans did not “sign on” to the Democratic-led investigation because they didn’t receive it until this past weekend and did not have ample time to review it before it was released. He said the hearing should have taken place before any report was issued.
Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, the late Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who was chair of the oversight and reform committee, and Courtney, whose district includes the academy, in June 2018 requested documents relating to any allegations of bullying and harassment at the academy, and the results of any investigations into those allegations, over the previous three years. They also asked for the academy’s response to disparities identified in a report called the Equity Scorecard, which looked at educational outcomes based on race and ethnicity and found, for example, that African American cadets had lower graduation rates and faced greater disciplinary action than their peers.
The report that came out of the committee’s investigation, however, focused on two complaints made by two faculty members at the academy who alleged bullying by the same supervisor.
One of those cases was investigated late last year by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, which found that the complainant, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear, was retaliated against when she received low marks on a performance evaluation after she reported bullying and harassment by her superiors, a violation of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. But the inspector general report did not substantiate every allegation of retaliation made by Young-McLear, including that she was denied transfer out of her academic department.
The inspector general report also found inconsistencies in how the academy handled the allegations made by Young-McLear, a black female, versus those made by the other faculty member, a white female, against the same supervisor. The white female's allegations were substantiated, while Young-McLear’s were not.
Jackson Eaton, deputy assistant inspector general for special reviews and evaluations, said that he could not say whether the issues identified during the course of the inspector general’s report are indicative of a wider problem. But, he said, the office is currently reviewing how the academy responds to allegations of race-based harassment. The office plans to issue a report based on that review in 2020.
The committees’ investigation found that the Coast Guard mishandled Young-McLear’s allegations of bullying and harassment, including allowing her supervisor, retired Capt. Kevin Lopes, who declined to participate in the investigation, to be directly involved in scheduling interviews as part of an investigation that resulted from her complaints, and that the Coast Guard’s investigations into complaints made by her and others routinely exceeded the 30-day timeline dictated by policy, among other issues.
Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona, the Republican ranking member of the transportation and maritime security subcommittee, called the committees’ investigation “one-sided,” saying, “The majority has spent considerable time and expense on an investigation into a matter that was already investigated by the inspector general and remediated by the Coast Guard.”
Young-McLear, a member of the permanent commissioned teaching staff at the academy, testified at Wednesday’s hearing that while at the academy, she was subjected to degrading comments, often used as a scapegoat and that her work was constantly undermined.
“The actions of every individual in my Coast Guard Academy chain of command, including by two admirals, fostered a climate of additional abuse and isolation,” she said. “That behavior eventually escalated to bullying and harassment and transformed an exciting work opportunity into a hostile work environment where I was targeted and retaliated against.”
Young-McLear is on a two-year assignment as a visiting scholar with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and will return to teach at the academy in the summer of 2021. Her wife, parents and a handful of friends and colleagues sat behind her throughout her testimony.
Courtney, who is not a member of either subcommittee but was invited to sit in on the hearing and ask questions, given his office’s involvement in the investigation, introduced Young-McLear. “What she’s talking about here today is not an isolated incident. The IG report clearly documents that we’re talking about a systemic issue,” he said.
Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, who handles human resources for the Coast Guard and oversees the academy, listed a range of actions taken by the service in the wake of the inspector general report, including requiring managers and supervisors to document in writing their findings when investigating harassment complaints. The Coast Guard also implemented additional training for supervisors and managers on the agency’s discrimination, harassment and bullying policies, including how to recognize, process and respond to an allegation and “the importance in exercising discretion in communicating about complaints undergoing review,” he said.
“The Coast Guard is focused on diversity and inclusion, and I share the commandant’s commitment to championing and maintaining an inclusive organizational climate where everyone feels safe, valued and respected,” he said.
McAllister said he doesn’t have any data to suggest bullying and harassment are widespread problems in the Coast Guard. Young-McLear, who has been involved in a variety of diversity and inclusion initiatives throughout the Coast Guard, disputed that point during her earlier testimony, saying such issues are pervasive. She said following the release of the inspector general’s report, dozens of people contacted her to say the issues are not isolated to the Coast Guard Academy.
McAllister said the Coast Guard receives about 250 discrimination complaints annually and is above the federal average when it comes to resolving those complaints in a timely manner. The service receives roughly the same number of hate and harassment complaints per year, about a third of which “result in action” — “everything from counseling to removal of duties,” he said.
Reps. Thompson and Carolyn Maloney of New York, the Democratic chairwoman of the oversight and reform committee, criticized the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Karl Schultz, for declining their invitation to testify Wednesday. Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a spokesman for the service, said the Coast Guard selected McAllister to testify, given that his expertise and responsibilities are most related to the congressional inquiry. McAllister was invited by Republicans to testify at the hearing.
Thompson said at Wednesday’s hearing that the Coast Guard had obstructed the committees' investigation by delaying the delivery of documents and heavily redacting them. To demonstrate his point, a completely redacted document provided to the committee by the Coast Guard was displayed on a screen in the hearing room. Coast Guard staff indicated during the course of the investigation that the Department of Homeland Security, which the service falls under, had refused to authorize the Coast Guard to produce the documents requested.
Updates from reporter Julia Bergman