Justice Dept. investigation into alleged sexual misconduct at USMMA underway, officials say

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U.S. Merchant Marine Academy students march away from a Fleet Week ceremony. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

An investigation by the Department of Justice is under way into alleged sexual misconduct on a U.S. Merchant Marine soccer team bus in September 2016, officials told the congressional Board of Visitors on Monday.

Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, the head of the Maritime Administration, an agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation overseeing the academy, said that there is “an investigation going on by the Eastern District,” according to Newsday.

Rear Adm. James Helis, the superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy, also told the panel that there is an ongoing federal investigation.

“Even though we have completed our administrative process here – as I understand it, we’ve completed the administrative process here – that does not affect the process being overseen by the Department of Justice with potential criminal charges,” Newsday reported Helis as telling the congressional panel, adding that there is a chance for a criminal case but academy officials have “almost no visibility on that.”

When asked to confirm that there was an ongoing federal investigation, a spokesman for the Eastern District declined to comment.

“We don’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations,” John Marzulli, the spokesman, said.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), a member of the Board of Visitors who attended the meeting, said he is particularly concerned about the lack of information being provided to board members.

Suozzi said that while the academy is a “great institution” that is “going through rough times,” it needs to improve communication with the board on topics of concern.

“What I’m concerned about is that they’re not disclosing this stuff to us and we’re learning about it from the press,” Suozzi said, adding that the board, right now, is “moribund.”

But Suozzi added that he is optimistic because Buzby seems committed to having the board take a much larger role.

Rodney McNany, a spokesman for the Maritime Administration, said that the seven students who were under investigation received their diplomas and Coast Guard certifications.

Investigators were looking into whether seven members of USMMA’s soccer team sexually abused a freshman player on a bus in September 2016, in an incident allegedly involving urine and thrown food.

On June 2, Helis notified the seven students that they were barred from graduation because of the investigation by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of the Inspector General. This prompted the students to sue the school, the Transportation Department and Helis in federal court.

The investigation also led Helis to cancel the academy’s men’s soccer season in the fall, although the team may return next season.

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