Congress criticizes how Coast Guard investigates harassment

A congressional investigation released Wednesday has found that the U.S. Coast Guard's leadership has failed to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations of harassment and bullying allegations

The U.S. Coast Guard's leadership has failed to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations of harassment and bullying allegations, according to a congressional investigation released Wednesday.

The report, called “Righting the Ship,” also found Coast Guard leaders didn't hold officials accountable for deficient and incomplete investigations and didn't take corrective action to address retaliation against people who report harassment and bullying. It concludes that the service needs to make “significant improvements” in its policies and procedures.

The U.S. House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees launched the 18-month investigation after questions were raised about how complaints were handled at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

A Coast Guard spokesman said the service has made changes this year to the way it handles allegations, including updating its civil rights manual to ensure appropriate oversight and visibility and creating new mandated training. Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride said the Coast Guard will give any recommendations from Congress due consideration.

Subcommittees for the two committees involved plan to discuss the findings Wednesday during a joint hearing.

The report includes a lengthy discussion about a case involving a member of the permanent teaching staff at the Coast Guard Academy, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear. Young-McLear reported in 2015 that her supervisor harassed her and created a hostile work environment, partly due to her sexual orientation and the fact she's a black woman. The report says the academy never investigated her allegations, instead using an alternative dispute resolution process.

Young-McLear, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday, has publicly said she turned to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General after she suffered retaliation for making the complaints. She said the Coast Guard did not hold those responsible accountable or provide a safe working environment.

The inspector general's 2018 report found that a lieutenant commander at the academy was retaliated against on the basis of her discrimination and harassment complaints, in violation of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. It recommended additional training for all supervisors about the service's bullying, harassment and discrimination policies.

The congressional report also finds fault with how a related bullying case at the academy was handled, and notes that 45 percent of female cadets reported that they experienced sexual harassment in 2018.

The committees said that although the cases they most closely examined involved faculty and leadership at the academy, the policy and processes used to address allegations apply to the entire Coast Guard.

Adm. Karl Schultz, the head of the Coast Guard, was asked to testify Wednesday. The Coast Guard said Vice Adm. Michael McAllister will speak for the service because he's in charge of human resources, training and personnel policy.

The committee leaders said in a statement Tuesday that Schultz declining to appear “only reinforces our concerns that Coast Guard leadership does not fully appreciate the gravity of what has occurred, and likely continues to occur, within the service.” They have also criticized the Coast Guard for delaying the delivery of requested documents and heavily redacting them during the investigation.

McBride, the service spokesman, said Schultz acted on recommendations from the Office of Inspector General report and that one of the Coast Guard's top priorities is pursuing a diverse, inclusive and effective service.

The congressional investigation was launched by the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who worked on Coast Guard diversity issues throughout his career, and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat. Thompson, the Homeland Security Committee chairman, said in a statement Wednesday the investigation has made clear that the Coast Guard must make major changes to address its climate and cultural challenges and ensure the accountability of its leadership.