More than a year after a student told the US Coast Guard she was plied with alcohol and raped by her boss while training at sea, the agency is going after her alleged assailant’s ability to work on commercial ships.
Coast Guard officials filed administrative charges against mariner Edgar Sison for alleged alcohol violations stemming from the rape accusations on Friday, a day after CNN reported that the agency had not taken any disciplinary measures against Sison – and had even renewed his government-issued credential. The complaint, which the Coast Guard said seeks to suspend Sison’s credential for one year, comes as officials await a decision from the Department of Justice on possible criminal charges related to the alleged rape.
Hope Hicks was a senior at the US Merchant Marine Academy when she sparked a Me Too movement in the commercial shipping industry by coming forward with her story, first in an anonymous account posted online and then to Coast Guard investigators. The agency’s criminal investigation into Hicks’ rape allegation was handed over to the Justice Department in early 2022, but a prosecution decision has yet to be reached. The Coast Guard typically waits to initiate administrative actions until a possible criminal case has been resolved, so focusing on an alleged alcohol violation seemingly allows the agency to go after Sison’s credential without jeopardizing the criminal probe.
Hicks’ long wait for any Coast Guard action was at the center of CNN’s recent report, which exposed how the agency has failed to prevent and punish sexual assault for decades and has long been lenient and inconsistent with sanctions for mariners found to have committed sexual offenses when compared with outcomes from cases where mariners used drugs, including marijuana. The investigation also found more than 25 mariners who held credentials after being convicted of sex crimes including rape, sexual battery, sexual assault and child molestation.
In many cases, the Coast Guard’s slow and secretive investigations have meant that there is little stopping an alleged perpetrator from continuing to work after an assault is reported. Hicks and other mariners have criticized the agency for not moving more swiftly to investigate and temporarily remove potential predators from ships.
“This industry is not safe, and the Coast Guard must do more,” Hicks told CNN. This week, she said she was relieved something is finally being done but that it should have happened long before the latest CNN report.
“I’m frustrated that any survivor would have to go on CNN and tell the world about the worst thing that ever happened to them in order to get the Coast Guard to take action against their assailant,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult.”
CNN was denied a copy of the Coast Guard’s complaint because a judge had not been assigned to the case. However, a spokesperson confirmed that a complaint alleging Sison violated company policy by “possessing and consuming” alcohol had been filed.
CNN’s investigation found that over the past decade, the agency hadn’t revoked a single credential for shipboard sexual misconduct. Yet mariners who have failed drug tests after using marijuana and even CBD oil have been stripped of their ability to work on ships.
“Recent decisions handed down by [the Coast Guard’s administrative court] on sexual misconduct cases, such as those highlighted in the recent CNN story, are extremely troubling, and I don’t have a lot of confidence the court would do the right thing in my case either,” Hicks said.
Maersk’s US subsidiary said in February 2022 that it had fired Hicks’ alleged rapist for refusing to participate in an internal investigation and turned over the results of the inquiry to the government. A Maersk spokesperson also confirmed to CNN that Sison was found to have violated the company’s alcohol policy. Hicks said she was outraged when she learned in a June 2022 meeting with prosecutors and Coast Guard investigators that Sison had been hired by another shipping company.
Jeremy Gauthier, the director of the Coast Guard Investigative Service, previously told CNN that the agency recently began engaging federal prosecutors sooner in the hopes that prosecution decisions are sped up so that actions taken against a credential can also happen more quickly.
Sison said he had no comment on the Coast Guard’s complaint or CNN’s investigation. His attorney said he was not authorized to comment on behalf of his client. The Coast Guard and Department of Justice did not comment on the status of the criminal investigation.
Sison’s union, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, has said that labor laws have kept the union from temporarily suspending Sison’s membership without any information or action from the Coast Guard. On Tuesday, the union’s president said the organization would need to see the contents of the complaint to determine whether it would affect Sison’s membership in the union and said it is “frustrating” to learn of the complaint’s existence from CNN and not the Coast Guard.
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