House Committee Leaders Ask Coast Guard Academy to Explain 'Handling' of Harassment Complaints

Two House committee chairmen on Monday requested two U.S. Coast Guard officials to attend interviews to explain the "handling of complaints of harassment and retaliation at the Coast Guard Academy."

In a letter on Monday, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asked Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz to provide two officials for interviews "no later than September 18." The two officials requested were Dr. Kurt Colella, U.S. Coast Guard Academy Deane, and Rear Admiral Anthony J. Vogt, Commander of the Thirteenth Coast Guard District.

"The Committee on Oversight and Reform and the Committee on Homeland Security have been investigating the handling of complaints of harassment and retaliation at the Coast Guard Academy as well as the Academy's responses to disparities identified in the Equity Scorecard review," the letter read. "However, our investigation has been repeatedly delayed by the Coast Guard's lack of transparency."

"We are deeply troubled by what appear to be repeated efforts by the Coast Guard to impede our investigation of the handling of allegations of harassment and retaliation at the Coast Guard Academy," Cummings and Thompson said, adding that if either Colella or Vogt "fails to appear as requested, we will be forced to consider alternative means to obtain compliance."

Coast guard Academy
File photo: Cadets walk into the hall for the 130th graduation at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy which is being addressed by President Barack Obama on May 18, 2011 in New London, Connecticut. Two House committee chairmen asked two Coast Guard officials to explain the handling of harassment complaints. Spencer Platt/Getty

The House's investigation was sparked by complaints of bullying and harassment of cadets of color at the institution and by the school's substandard "Equity Scorecard" grades, a study conducted by the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California.

In addition to finding that "black/African American cadets have been consistently less likely to graduate than the all-cadet average," the scorecard also noted that the group also faced a disproportionately higher volume of disciplinary action.

Democrats first began requesting information from Coast Guard officials regarding the harassment allegations in June 2018, more than a year ago. Later that month, the Coast Guard provided the House with 70 pages of heavily redacted documents.

Due to the Freedom of Information Act, the Coast Guard is "obligated to withhold release of pre decisional and deliberative records, as well as those records that would constitute an invasion of personal privacy if released," the Coast Guard wrote in a cover letter accompanying the documents.

Over the next few months, the Coast Guard turned over meager amounts of additional information. "The materials contained fewer redactions than the original production, but there were still extensive redactions, and it appeared that numerous items responsive to our document request still had not been produced," Cummings and Thompson wrote in their letter.

In December, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a report stating that a Lieutenant Commander at the Coast Guard Academy "was retaliated against on the basis of her complaints, in violation of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act," according to the letter. The OIG report also set out "potential disparities" in the handling of harassment complaints within the Academy.

The House congressmen's staff and Coast Guard Academy officials finally met in person last Wednesday. "All of the Coast Guard personnel who were present at the meeting were directed to refuse to answer any questions regarding any past events at the Academy," the letter said, "involving either faculty or cadets, including any questions pertaining to the OIG's report or to any document produced by the Coast Guard to the Committee."