A federal judge ordered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point to disclose the charges against seven suspended soccer players within 10 days, or he would rule in favor of the students seeking to graduate from the school.
U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Knapp engaged in a contentious back and forth during a roughly 20-minute hearing Thursday at federal court in Central Islip.
The school’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, barred the seven from graduating last month while the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General conducted an investigation into sexual misconduct. Wexler last month ruled that the students could walk in the June 17 ceremony while the government withheld their diplomas and Coast Guard licenses. The students’ lawyers said that the students’ postgraduate lives were in limbo while the case was under investigation.
“You don’t think they’re entitled to know what the charges are?” Wexler asked. “Did you ever hear of the United States Constitution?”
Wexler chastised federal officials for not revealing the charges to the students, whom Helis had placed on “deferred graduate status.” Helis last month also suspended the men’s Division III soccer program.
“You’re supposed to do something,” Wexler told Knapp. “You haven’t done a thing.”
Knapp said the Inspector General’s Office in February began an investigation into “assault on a bus.” He disputed the plaintiffs’ description in court papers of what occurred.
In court papers, lawyers for six of the students acknowledge an incident occurring on a team bus last fall in which a freshman player believed he was doused with urine. However, the plaintiffs stated they believed the liquid was water and denied involvement in the incident with the freshman. Another plaintiff said he was not on the bus during the alleged incident.
“What are they investigating?” Wexler asked during the exchange. “When did you find out? . . . It’s been going on for five months, and still nobody knows what the charges were in the bus.”
“They call it teasing . . . one man’s teasing is another man’s hazing.” The alleged incident occurred in September but, Knapp said, “the academy did not know that they occurred in September.”
Knapp said the Inspector General’s Office began investigating in February. He said he did not know who contacted the OIG, but that the information came “incident to another investigation.” The probe is ongoing, Knapp said, adding that the U.S. Defense Department will not commission someone under investigation.
Wexler said, “The order is limited to the academy saying what the charges are.”
A spokeswoman for the Maritime Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation agency that oversees the academy, referred inquiries to a Justice Department spokesman, who declined to comment.
The case resumes July 17 at 10:30 a.m.
Wexler said the charges must be filed or “I’ll resolve it in 10 days.”
The seven students — some in dress shirts, others in suits — sat together in the courtroom’s first row during Thursday’s hearing; their parents and relatives were seated behind them.
“We’re happy with the result. Under the law, each client is entitled to notice of the specific charges against them,” said Michael Cassell, a Jericho attorney representing five of the seven students.
On Wednesday, Wexler denied the plaintiffs’ motion to question Helis and seeking other documents related to the investigation through a subpoena served on June 23.
Government lawyers stated in court papers that “each plaintiff has been notified that he is a subject of the DOT-OIG investigation.” Allowing the plaintiffs to view such documents “could compromise and/or undermine the investigation, thereby jeopardizing the public’s weighty interest in insuring that the USMMA, a taxpayer-funded service Academy, thoroughly, and without interference, concludes its investigation.”