Congress Takes Aim at U.S. Coast Guard Saying it Failed Women and Minorities

The U.S Coast Guard failed to provide a safe working environment for women and minority cadets, as well as failed to investigate charges of harassment by senior officers and prevent retaliation for those who reported bullying and harassment, the House Oversight and Reform Committee said.

The claims are based on lengthy investigations conducted by the Committee and The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. In reading an opening statement at hearings on Wednesday, Oversight Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee Chairman Jamie Raskin of Maryland (D) blasted the Coast Guard and its leadership for ignoring the complaints of bullying and harassment, and for disciplining those who spoke out.

“The findings of the Committee is clear,” said Raskin. “The Coast Guard 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 systemic failures.”

The committee's admonishment is based on an 18-month investigation that was led by late chairman Elijah Cummings, and thousands of documents and interviews with Coast Guard personnel.

The committee accused the Coast Guard of failing to:

  • Conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations of allegations of harassment and bullying;

  • Hold officials accountable for deficient and incomplete investigations; and

  • Take corrective action to address retaliation against individuals who report harassment and bullying.

U.S . Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Kimberly Young-McLear testifies before Congress on December 11 about the years of harassment she experienced at the Coast Guard Academy. (YouTube)

The Whistleblower

Lieutenant Commander Kimberly Young-McLear, a Black lesbian faculty member at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, was “retaliated against on the basis of her complaints, in violation of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act,” according to a Department of Homeland Security report. The Lieutenant Commander received low marks on her Officer Evaluation Report (OER) after making “discrimination and harassment complaints against her superiors” back in 2016, read the report, and further stated that the U.S. Coast Guard “failed to respond to the discrimination and harassment experienced by [Young-McLear], and the U.S. Coast Guard “subjected [Young-McLear] to additional harassment and retaliatory actions after filing the complaint.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General substantiated Young-McLear’s claim that she was retaliated against because of her complaints, citing a “preponderance of evidence” which lead to that negative OER.

“The totality of the evidence demonstrated that [Young-McLear] would have received higher marks absent her complaints,” read the DHS report released in December of 2018.

The OIG focused its attention, not on the complaints themselves, but on how the Coast Guard responded to those complaints, and whether or not a violation of the Military Whistleblowers Protection Act had occurred by retaliating against Young-McLear for issuing those complaints. Speaking under oath, OIG Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Special Reviews and Evaluations Jackson Eaton told Congress directly that it had.

“[The low marks of her OER] could not be justified by any documented performance issues,” Eaton testified to Congress. “Moreover, none of her peers had a rating as low as hers and she herself had received higher marks in both prior and subsequent rating periods.”

The DHS OIG also pointed out issues in the reporting of the Lieutenant Commander’s harassment complaint, stating that an official identified as Academy Official1 ordered a preliminary inquiry, which led to a recommendation for a “full administrative investigation of [Young-McLear’s] allegations conducted by someone with equal employment opportunity or civil rights credentials.

” However, Academy Official1, and an official identified as Academy Official2, ignored that recommendation and ordered a general climate and culture investigation, which, according to the report, was “a relatively superficial effort and did not address [Young-McLear’s] particular situation.” The report further charges that Academy Official2 “conveyed incomplete and/or misleading information regarding the outcome of the preliminary inquiry to [Young-McLear’s] and her colleagues, likely exacerbating the situation.”

While Young-McLear has permitted the OIG to now use her name and is speaking publicly, no one else named in the DHS report has granted the OIG such permissions.

On December 11, Young-McLear detailed the painful years of abuse to Congress since first alerting her superiors of her mistreatment back in 2016, including the “psychological, emotional and financial toll” it has had on herself and her wife. She spoke of degrading comments, being undermined and often being scapegoated when she began teaching at the academy.

“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. That behavior eventually escalated into bullying and harassment and transformed an exciting work opportunity into a hostile work environment where I was targeted and retaliated against.”

In the eighteen months following July, 2015, Young-McLear filed five sets of formal and informal complaints of discrimination and harassment while at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, according to Eaton. The OIG’s investigation went on for just over a year.

“The more I reported the escalating abuse to the chain of command, even above the academy,” Young-McLear told Congress. “The further I was targeted, harassed and retaliated against.

“If individuals serving the Coast Guard are not safe in the workplace, whether because they are facing sexual assault, hazing, bullying harassment, discrimination or retaliation, then we are actively impeding our ability to care out our missions fully.” said Young-McLear. “The Coast Guard’s lack of accountability, transparency and integrity, with respect to these types of allegations, are just some of the barriers to achieving a fully thriving workforce.

“Ultimately the Coast Guard failed to provide a safe working environment and failed to hold those accountable despite evidence of wrongdoing and knowledge of our culture.”

What They’re Saying

Several Members of Congress took the Coast Guard to task for not taking the steps necessary to protect their cadets and faculty from abuse and retaliation.

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D): “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. The Coast Guard should fully adopt the recommendations in this report to prevent these abuses from happening in the future. No employee should ever feel unsafe at work or worry about retaliation for sounding the alarm on misconduct.”

Raskin: “Chairman Cummings was passionately devoted to increasing the participation of people of color and women in the Coast Guard Academy. The Coast Guard’s failure to take workplace harassment seriously weakens our armed forces and threatens the progress we have made to diversify the ranks.”

California Congressman Lou Correa (D): “I have great respect for the Coast Guard and its mission. Sadly, persistent problems with the Coast Guard’s processes for investigating allegations of harassment, bullying, and retaliation threaten to undermine that mission. The failure of the Coast Guard to address confirmed retaliation against its men and women serving our nation is inexcusable. It is unfortunate that it took Inspector General investigations for the Coast Guard to take action, and it’s clear continued oversight will be necessary to ensure the Coast Guard actually carries out much-needed reforms. My colleagues and I are here to assist in addressing these issues, so the Coast Guard can get back to their core mission of protecting and securing our nation.”

What Now

While Young-McLear’s OER was corrected after the OIG report, and she has been lauded by several Members of Congress for speaking out about her abuse, according to Eaton, no one involved in the violation of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act by retaliating against Young-McLear has been disciplined. But Bennie G. Thompson, the Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security wants to see something done.

“Our 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,” said the Democrat from Mississippi in a statement. “The Coast Guard must take care of its own people or it will not be able to execute its critical mission to protect our homeland. These systemic issues should not only alarm the leadership at the Coast Guard Academy — but also Coast Guard headquarters. Coast Guard leadership must address these serious matters now. I appreciate the work of my colleagues, and especially the leadership of the late Chairman Cummings, on this necessary investigation.”