U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan arrives for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2024 about sexual assault and harassment in the Coast Guard.

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan arrives for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2024 about sexual assault and harassment in the Coast Guard. Andrew Harnik / Getty Images

Coast Guard's handling of misconduct allegations draws increased scrutiny from Congress

Congressional inquiries were spurred by a media report that the Coast Guard kept hidden a multi-year investigation into sexual assault at its service academy.

Members of both parties in both houses of Congress criticized the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday for allegedly withholding documents requested as part of investigations into the military branch’s handling of misconduct, particularly sexual assault. 

The investigations subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing with Coast Guard Commandant Linda Fagan during which the panel chairman called sexual assault and harassment in the armed service a “present, ongoing, persistent and unacceptably prevalent problem.” 

“The mishandling of abuse complaints seems intolerably common. We've received reports from almost 40 whistleblowers just in the last few months that attest to this ongoing problem,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Unfortunately, the evidence points to a culture of cover up continuing, as exemplified by the resistance to producing for us documents that very specifically and importantly should be part of this investigation.”

Fagan said she is committed to “lasting cultural change” and that the Coast Guard reviewed nearly two million pages and provided all relevant documents to the subcommittee, totaling more than 18,000 pages. 

However Blumenthal complained that the Coast Guard won’t provide documents deemed “sensitive,” which he interpreted as meaning “embarrassing,” and accused the military branch of dumping difficult-to-decipher documents the day before the hearing. 

Ranking member Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he expects subpoenas will be necessary. 

“I was hoping that the assurances given to us months ago that everybody in the Coast Guard [was] going to be completely transparent, that they had to change the culture and they recognized that the only way to change the culture is through disclosure and accountability, I wish all that was true. But it hasn't turned out to be that way,” Johnson said. 

While senators were grilling Fagan, leaders from the House Oversight and Accountability Committee sent her a letter asking why the Coast Guard hasn’t sent more documents to the panel as part of its own investigation into the force’s handling of racism, hazing, discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault and other misconduct. 

According to the letter, the Coast Guard has provided about 8,300 pages of documents in response to congressional requests sent on July 13 and Dec. 8, 2023. But the service previously indicated to the committee that it had “1.8 million pages of potentially responsive material.” 

The House committee leaders also criticized the armed service for refusing to brief them about plans to send additional documents to investigators and said they heard from whistleblowers who have “come forward to recount traumatizing experiences and who have revealed additional cultural deficiencies and alleged incompetence and misconduct by current and former leaders within USCG.”

They set a deadline for the Coast Guard to fully comply with their requests for information by June 25. 

The letter was signed by full committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., full committee ranking member Jamie Raskin, D-Md., subcommittee on National Security, the Border and Foreign Affairs Chairman Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., and subcommittee ranking member Robert Garcia, D-Calif. 

The Coast Guard told Government Executive in a statement that it will provide a formal reply to the letter and “is committed to transparency and affording Congress the opportunity to provide appropriate oversight.” 

Both congressional inquiries were prompted by a June 2023 CNN report that the U.S. Coast Guard in 2014 launched an investigation called Operation Fouled Anchor into alleged sexual assaults at the Coast Guard Academy from the late 1980s to 2006. The investigation, which it kept secret from Congress, “found that school leaders routinely failed to report serious allegations to law enforcement, intentionally avoiding the criminal justice system.”

Additionally, Shannon Norenberg, the former sexual assault response coordinator at the Coast Guard Academy, on Sunday posted a blog in which she claims that the Coast Guard did not offer forms to victims interviewed for Operation Fouled Anchor that would make it easier for them to obtain Veterans Affairs Department services for trauma from their sexual assault because doing so would increase the number of sexual assault cases reported at the academy. 

During her testimony before the investigations subcommittee, Fagan said that Norenberg’s allegations would be part of an ongoing inspector general investigation.