Coast Guard commandant skirts accountability questions from lawmakers as reports of sexual assault in the service climb
WASHINGTON — Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the Coast Guard, dodged questions Wednesday from lawmakers on harassment, bullying and retaliation in the service as a new report revealed the service is struggling with an overall rise in sexual assault cases.
The number of reported incidents of sexual assault increased from 225 in fiscal 2019 to 245 reports in fiscal 2020, according to a Coast Guard report sent to Congress on June 16.
At the same time, reported allegations of sexual harassment decreased from 92 in fiscal 2019 to 86 in fiscal 2020. The service said in the report that the decline is attributable to the Coast Guard’s efforts to increase awareness of sexual harassment prevention.
The data from the annual report last year combined with data from previous Coast Guard reports show a steady increase in the number of reports since 2007, though it is not clear what’s behind the rise.
The latest internal Coast Guard report was discussed as part of a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday on accountability, diversity and inclusion within the service.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the committee’s chairman, said the service’s efforts to address sexual assault and sexual harassment, retaliation, diversity and a lack of accountability for perpetrators are “falling short of what is needed or not making an impact quickly.”
The Coast Guard falls under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, so the service does not contribute to a more high-profile annual report on sexual assault across the other military branches, which are a part of the Defense Department.
Wednesday’s hearing marked the first time that Schultz testified about how the service is addressing harassment, bullying and retaliation after a series of damning congressional and inspector general reports.
When lawmakers asked Schultz to demonstrate how he has held leadership and other perpetrators accountable for their actions, the commandant discussed updates to anti-harassment and anti-hate incident policy, as well as other recommendations but was scant on details. He also said other members of the Coast Guard would be better suited to answer a question on how he encourages accountability.
The increased reporting of sexual assaults in the Coast Guard comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill look to make a significant change to how military sexual assault and harassment cases are prosecuted. On Wednesday, House lawmakers introduced a bill that would remove the decision to prosecute serious crimes in the military from the chain of command.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also said Tuesday night that he backs the move to give the power to prosecute cases of sexual assault to independent prosecutors after decades of resistance from the Pentagon.
The newest report on the Coast Guard follows the results of several other investigations that brought to light the service’s mishandling of allegations of harassment and bullying. Military leadership did not hold officials accountable for failing to complete investigations, and perpetrators were also not adequately disciplined for toxic, and sometimes unlawful behavior.
Thompson said the series of Coast Guard reports highlight a “culture of fear that discourages reporting of misconduct,” as well as “major cultural problems” at the Coast Guard Academy.
The lawmaker said the new report on sexual assault reveals a “disturbing trend.”
Reports of sexual assault have more than doubled in the last decade, Thompson said, citing the Coast Guard report. A 2018 survey also found nearly half of female cadets at the academy said they had been sexually harassed.
“Taken together, these reports should be setting off every alarm bell, warning light and alert system at the Coast Guard headquarters and on every base, cutter and air space. As the senior leader of the Coast Guard, Admiral Schultz is ultimately responsible for responding to this five-alarm fire,” Thompson said.
Schultz said the data on sexual assault shows a “slow glide slope,” some of which he would attribute to “more comfort in reporting.”
“I think we have created a more open environment to report… we are working hard to eradicate sexual assaults, sexual harassment from our ranks,” he said.
The commandant also said he agrees sexual harassment jeopardizes readiness and mission accomplishment, and weakens trust within the ranks and erodes unit cohesion.
Schultz said the service has improved the way allegations are addressed by refining investigative procedures and processing timelines to expedite adjudication of complaints in the last couple of years.
“We mandated additional training and enhanced selection criteria for investigators, and now, investigators are appointed from outside the immediate chain of command. These changes add fairness and transparency to the investigative process,” Schultz said.
However, the commandant did not give his support to remove the decision to prosecute serious crimes from the chain of command.
“Keeping commanders in the decision-making process is absolutely essential, because this is [the] commander's business...we will follow suit with the armed services and I am open to change,” Schultz said.
But Schultz was not as direct in response to questions from Democratic lawmakers about how the service is developing a culture that emphasizes accountability and justice.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., asked what Schultz has done to ensure perpetrators receive appropriate discipline and do not advance for promotions.
The commandant said accountability is “woven into” all the subsequent recommendations that the service is implementing at the direction of Congress and Homeland Security’s inspector general but he did not provide specifics.
“We have the Uniform Code of Military Justice from a discipline standpoint. We have administrative tools at our discretion to use and we absolutely will try to create a perception, or reality, that there is accountability,” Schultz said.
Clarke pressed the admiral on whether he believes there is a culture of retaliation and fear that prevents saying anything negative about the Coast Guard at the risk of facing professional consequences.
“Do I believe there’s a pervasive culture? No,” Schultz said.
The congresswoman also asked how Schultz is promoting a culture of accountability that is actively encouraged.
“I think it would probably be incumbent on my 57,000 shipmates to better answer that question than me,” he said.
Schultz said 125 “cultural change agents” will be fully trained by the end of summer to deliver diversity training and facilitate conversations about diversity and mentorship, which is tied to the service’s diversity and inclusion action plan.
The commandant was also grilled on the case of Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear, a key part of the 2019 congressional probe, which substantiated years of bullying, harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
All the senior Coast Guard officials who were found to have “allowed her allegations to go uninvestigated and who failed to protect her from retaliation” in Young-McLear’s case have all received promotions or competitive job assignments, said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.
“It is imperative that the Coast Guard hold these leaders accountable for retaliation and ensure survivors are made whole,” the congresswoman said.
She asked what has been done to hold those individuals accountable in Young-McLear’s case and other cases.
Schultz spoke for a few minutes about the details of the case, but did not describe any form of action.
“I am concerned when you find substantiated allegations, what are the consequences to the individuals that either perpetrated the harassment or the discrimination, or who allowed it and didn’t do anything about it,” Coleman said.
Schultz said he did not have the grounds to take disciplinary action or administrative action, but focused on corrective action. He said one captain at the academy had been reassigned within the school as a result of the investigation and the captain later retired.
Coleman cut him off: “The chairman asked you this question, which you artfully dodged the yes or no. Has there been a public apology, specifically, to [Young-McLear]? … Would you be willing to issue a written apology for the record on this.”
“Congresswoman, I’m not sure if it’s as simple as a yes or no question… I addressed the cadet corps and the first question I got was from [Young-McLear] and I stated that the Coast Guard had not done right by her and that was unfortunate,” Schultz said.
He said it was “tricky business” on whether he would issue a written apology, yet he said he would apologize “up front” to people who have been harmed in the past.
“It is a tricky space, but...if there are no consequences, there’s no change [in] behavior. And simple reassignment is not really a consequence,” the congresswoman said.
Young-McLear wrote in a statement on the record for the hearing that “the commandant denied my requests for a formal written apology, a meeting to discuss ways in which the culture must improve, and accountability.”
Until there is accountability and justice on these issues, Young-McLear wrote “survivors like myself will not move on.”