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Cummings questions maritime fairness

The Baltimore Sun

The chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for oversight of the U.S. Coast Guard said yesterday that he will convene a hearing to explore allegations that the agency's administrative law system is biased and that its judges are pressured to rule in the Coast Guard's favor.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he also plans to ask Commandant Thad W. Allen to consider immediate action to protect the rights of defendants whose cases are now before the Coast Guard's courts.

"This needs to be looked at quickly," said Cummings, chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. "Even the appearance of injustice or impropriety cannot be tolerated."

Cummings was responding to an article published yesterday in The Sun -- based on evidence in federal court records, computer files, internal memos and the sworn testimony of a former agency judge -- suggesting that the Coast Guard's system is stacked against mariners. The Baltimore-based administrative court system handles hundreds of cases each year brought by the agency against civilian mariners accused of negligence, misconduct or other infractions, and its judges have the authority to suspend or revoke the credentials that mariners must have in order to work.

Former Coast Guard Administrative Law Judge Jeffie J. Massey, who left the agency in March and 10 days later gave a sworn statement about her experience, said she was told by Chief Judge Joseph N. Ingolia that she was not a judge but rather a tool to enable the Coast Guard to gain the rulings it wants.

"I was specifically told [by Ingolia] that I should always rule for the Coast Guard," she testified.

According to Massey, court records and internal memorandums obtained by The Sun, Ingolia told other judges how to rule in cases and dictated policy through private memos that were never shared with defendants or their lawyers, a practice that could violate federal laws requiring that agency judicial procedures be published and subject to challenge. And staff attorneys for the chief judge and the commandant's office discussed cases with Coast Guard investigators, possibly violating mariners' right to an impartial hearing.

Out of more than 6,300 charges brought in the past eight years, mariners prevailed in just 14, according to agency records. When dismissals are included, records show that the Coast Guard wins or reaches a settlement in more than 97 percent of its cases.

"I practiced law for 20 years, and I can't imagine some of this stuff happening," said Cummings, who had a general practice in Baltimore before being elected to Congress in 1996. "You don't have investigators and judges' staff talking to each other, not if what you're looking for is fairness. If these things that are being said are accurate, then anyone in the mariners' position would be hard pressed to believe that they're going to have their case heard in a fair and impartial manner. And we need to address that."

Coast Guard officials, who have declined to discuss the issue with The Sun, citing pending lawsuits filed by mariners against Ingolia and others, released a statement yesterday saying that Allen is "committed to ensuring that proceedings involving the suspension and revocation of merchant mariner documents ... are fair and provide due process to mariners."

Cummings said he hopes to have Massey testify before members of Congress, and Massey said yesterday that she would if asked.

"I am willing to tell the truth about what happened at the Coast Guard with anyone who will listen," said Massey, reached at her home in Texas. "What they are doing is wrong, and people need to know about it."

Cummings said he and Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, will decide in the next few days whether to convene a hearing before the Coast Guard subcommittee or the full House Transportation Committee, which Oberstar chairs. He said he hopes to hold the hearing soon after Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess.

In her statement, Massey said a former colleague expressed fear for his job if he didn't rule in favor of the Coast Guard, even though a mariner had offered what the judge thought was compelling evidence of his innocence.

And court records allege that an attorney who helps write appellate decisions for the commandant met with Coast Guard investigators, who also serve as prosecutors, and discussed issues in pending cases. If true, it would violate federal laws guaranteeing separation of a court's judicial and appellate branches.

Two attorneys in New Orleans have filed complaints with the Justice Department alleging that the meetings and other evidence from Massey's statements amount to obstruction of justice. Officials at the Justice Department have declined to comment.

Richard A. Block, secretary of a Louisiana organization formed to promote the rights of mariners who work in the Gulf of Mexico, called the findings "an absolute disgrace that has sabotaged the United States Merchant Marine." In a letter yesterday to The Sun, he questioned how any mariner who appeared before Coast Guard judges could be confident of a fair hearing and called on the agency to reopen cases to ensure that outcomes were just.

"How many merchant mariners' careers were interrupted or destroyed when they were denied due process?" he asked.

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