House Inquiry Rebukes Coast Guard for Bullying and Harassment
WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard has fostered a poor environment for women and minority cadets and has failed to fairly investigate harassment by senior officers and to prevent retaliation against people who report bullying, a House committee said Wednesday.
The report, by the House Oversight and Reform and Homeland Security Committees, accused the service of “leadership failures and a lack of accountability,” and was based on thousands of documents and interviews with Coast Guard personnel. The investigation focused on how the maritime agency handled two reports of harassment at the Coast Guard Academy, including one made by an instructor who identified as black and lesbian who said she was discriminated against and bullied by the agency’s leadership.
The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Coast Guard, had found last year that the former instructor, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear, received low marks on a performance evaluation in 2016 because she came forward with complaints of harassment. She now works on cybersecurity at the department. The report concluded that in retaliating against her, the Coast Guard violated the Military Whistleblower and Protection Act.
“Ultimately, the Coast Guard failed to provide a safe working environment and failed to hold those responsible accountable despite evidence of wrongdoing and knowledge of our culture,” Ms. Young-McLear said, according to her opening remarks for a joint House hearing on Wednesday. “The psychological, emotional and financial toll this has had on my wife or me cannot be overstated.”
The report is a blow to a Department of Homeland Security agency that has tried to remake itself as inclusive as it has struggled to increase diversity within its ranks.
“This report shows that the Coast Guard repeatedly swept allegations of bullying and harassment under the rug, and did not hold senior officials accountable for their actions,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, the chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee. “No employee should ever feel unsafe at work or worry about retaliation for sounding the alarm on misconduct.”
The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A 2017 study of the Coast Guard Academy by the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California found that “Black/African-American cadets have been consistently less likely to graduate than the all-cadet average” and that they were subjected to “substantially” higher rates of discipline, according to the House report.
The organization, which serves as a law enforcement service, with its members working with the intelligence community throughout the world, was shaken earlier this year by the arrest of a lieutenant and self-described white nationalist accused of plotting terrorist attacks from its headquarters.
Admiral Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant, has described retaining women and minorities in the military branch as a priority. He dedicated a portion of his first state of the Coast Guard address last spring to detailing new policies to use staff from the Coast Guard Reserve corps to back up officers looking to go on parental leave, ease single-parent rules that could disqualify recruits and revise weight standards “that disproportionately affect women.”
“They are small ripples that will lead to a groundswell of cultural change,” Admiral Schultz said.
But the House investigators have not seen substantial change.
The heads of the House Homeland Security and Oversight committees instead rebuked Admiral Schultz for refusing to testify at a joint hearing on Wednesday.
“Your refusal to testify 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,” Representatives Maloney and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the Homeland Security Committee chairman, said in a joint statement.
The House investigation found that some of Ms. Young-McLear’s allegations were not investigated until she elevated her complaint to the Office of Inspector General. Such investigations into harassment often exceed 30 days, violating internal policy, and the Coast Guard does not employ anyone credentialed in investigating harassment, according to the House report.
The agency also involved people who were implicated in the investigative process.
At one point, the department head who was accused of bullying Ms. Young-McLear, Captain Kevin Lopes, was tasked with scheduling interviews for the investigation.
According to the report, Captain Lopes was also accused of bullying another employee during a training session meant to prevent bullying and hazing in 2018.