Trou­bling re­port de­mands con­gres­sional re­sponse

The Day - - OPINION -

I n 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 ex­as­per­ated the pres­sure and in­tim­i­da­tion the whistle­blower was fac­ing, the in­spec­tor gen­eral found.

Congress must de­mand an­swers.

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