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Former Coast Guard head covered up secret investigation into sexual assaults at the Coast Guard Academy

2023-08-08 23:50
The then-leader of the US Coast Guard covered up an explosive investigation four years ago into rapes and sexual assaults at the agency's academy despite prior plans by top officials to come clean about the inquiry, a CNN investigation found.
Former Coast Guard head covered up secret investigation into sexual assaults at the Coast Guard Academy

The then-leader of the US Coast Guard covered up an explosive investigation four years ago into rapes and sexual assaults at the agency's academy despite prior plans by top officials to come clean about the inquiry, a CNN investigation found.

Commandant Karl L. Schultz took charge of the agency in June of 2018 as the secret investigation, dubbed Operation Fouled Anchor, was concluding. The inquiry revealed a dark history of sexual misconduct at the prestigious academy, substantiating dozens of rapes and assaults from the late 1980s to 2006.

The probe — the existence of which was first reported by CNN in late June — found that the academy's leadership had been more concerned about the school's reputation than victims' wellbeing. While the report's findings were not flattering, internal records reviewed by CNN show that people involved with the investigation had made plans to brief Congress and officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which has direct oversight of the Coast Guard. One internal memo shows that investigators believed Fouled Anchor's findings should be "required reading for current and future Academy leadership teams." Another detailed plans for DHS to be briefed in October 2018, with a "Hill brief" to follow a few weeks later.

Schultz's predecessor, Admiral Paul Zukunft, said in an exclusive interview wth CNN that in addition to briefing Congress and DHS, he planned to issue a public apology to the victims the investigation identified. But he retired before the probe was over. He said he briefed Schultz on the matter.

"I'm a big believer that bad news, like dead fish, don't get better with time," Zukunft said.

But under Schultz, none of that happened.

Now, lawmakers are demanding to know why.

Internal records and interviews with those involved in the investigation show that Schultz and his second-in-command, Admiral Charles W. Ray, failed to act on plans to share the findings with Congress and the public, and maintained a veil of secrecy around the investigation. At the time, the agency was embroiled in a controversy surrounding the academy's treatment of minorities and was lobbying Congress for funding. In June, Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin sent a letter to the Coast Guard, saying the committee was "concerned about the Coast Guard's failure to disclose its investigation... the withholding of which some have described as intentional." The senators argued that some level of disclosure was required by law.

By keeping the investigation secret, the Coast Guard avoided further scrutiny of how alleged rapists and other attackers were not held accountable at the academy. In the wake of CNN's reporting and the congressional outrage that followed, other alleged victims have reached out to CNN and congressional offices, saying they too were assaulted as cadets at the academy, but were not included in the Fouled Anchor investigation. The victims, some who attended as recently as a few years ago, said their alleged assaults drastically affected their mental health, personal relationships and careers, while some of their attackers went on to have impressive careers in the Coast Guard and other military agencies.

During the course of the Fouled Anchor probe, Coast Guard leaders guarded its secrecy to the point that officials with access to case materials had to sign non-disclosure agreements, records show. It wasn't until CNN started asking questions about Fouled Anchor several months ago that Coast Guard leaders officially briefed Congress on the scope of the scandal. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, where the academy is based, characterized the suppression of the report as "probably the most shameful, disgraceful incident of cover-up of sexual assault that I have seen in the United States military ever."

A congressional aide familiar with the probe told CNN that it seems Schultz and Ray made a "political calculation" to withhold the information. "They knew. They read it. They signed off on it," the aide said. "It seems like the most logical reason is that they didn't want to have controversy under their leadership."

Neither Chad Wolf, the acting secretary who led the Department of Homeland Security when the investigation's final report was issued in January 2020, nor his then-deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, recalled being briefed on the investigation, according to people familiar with the matter. Multiple sources said leadership at the agency would have expected to be briefed given the gravity and scope of the investigation. The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on a prior administration.

Schultz and Ray declined comment, referring questions to the Coast Guard. Coast Guard officials did not specifically comment on the two leaders.

The current commandant, Linda Fagan, who took over for Schultz after he retired last year, has apologized to the victims of the sexual assaults and pledged to be more transparent about the agency's problems. "Just like on a ship when you have rust, we've got pockets of rust that need to be eliminated from the organization," she said at a congressional subcommittee hearing last month.

She said she only became aware of the "totality" of Fouled Anchor following CNN's reporting. It was at that point, she said, that the agency started to brief Congress. The agency said in a statement that "Fagan was not included in the group of senior leaders who oversaw closing the operation, nor was she consulted when it was closed regarding disclosure in or outside the Coast Guard." She was not briefed on the operation when she became commandant in 2022, according to the statement. The agency said she read the final report for the first time after CNN's inquiries. She has acknowledged, however, that she had learned of the investigation prior to CNN's reporting when she had to temporarily relieve someone from her command who was caught up in the investigation.

Fagan is not the only current Coast Guard official who was aware of the secret operation at some level. Internal records and interviews show that several of those intimately involved with the operation remain employed at the agency. Those who have retired in recent years, meanwhile, remain on the agency's books as pension recipients, and some have gone on to top positions elsewhere, including one who leads a university.

Ray, for example, retired as vice commandant in 2021, but now works at the academy's Loy Institute for Leadership, which aims to develop leaders who inspire "others to achieve a goal by seeking to discover the truth, deciding what is right and demonstrating the courage to act accordingly...always."

'We can't just sweep it under the carpet'

Zukunft, who launched Operation Fouled Anchor in 2014, called the investigation a "big deal" because sexual assault victims faced "betrayal up the chain of command." He said he was "incredulous" that officials didn't brief Congress and publicize the findings after the final report was issued in January of 2020.

"At a bare minimum, we owed it to these victims to provide some sense of emotional closure," Zukunft said. "We can't just sweep it under the carpet."

Schultz's silence on Fouled Anchor stands in contrast with public statements he made when he led the agency about the importance of preventing sexual assault. He called such crimes "a direct attack on our people" in a 2018 video and met with Coast Guard Academy cadets in 2020 to discuss the issue.

In a House hearing in 2021, Schultz even suggested congressional oversight had helped the Coast Guard make improvements in addressing sexual assault and harassment. "With the committee's assistance and keen oversight, we have considerably increased the fidelity, and really the professionalism of our investigatory actions," he said.

Despite extensively discussing sexual assault during that hearing, Schultz did not mention Fouled Anchor or its findings.

Several retired Coast Guard officials who worked closely with Schultz and Ray could not offer a specific reason for why Congress was kept in the dark, though several acknowledged in interviews with CNN that it should have been handled differently.

Melissa Bert, who was the head of government and public affairs at the agency from 2018 to 2020 and went on to serve as the agency's first female chief counsel before retiring this year, acknowledged that the agency could have been more transparent. But she also pointed to "constant turnover" at the agency. "At some point it was not the top thing on somebody's mind," she said. "There is so so much going on in the Coast Guard."

Bert argued, however, that "a lack of transparency does not equate to a lack of action or responsiveness" and pointed to improvements in how alleged attackers are investigated and held accountable, as well as support services provided to assault survivors, that she said she and others had fought for at the agency.

"While it should have been a huge deal to let people know that the Coast Guard had responded, it just went with the past," she said. "There is always a new problem every day."

Do you have information to share about the Coast Guard Academy or Coast Guard? Email melanie.hicken@cnn.com.