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USMMA student’s case to be heard in federal court

The Vickery Gate at the entrance of the

The Vickery Gate at the entrance of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Credit: Steve Pfost

An attorney for a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy student, suspended March 23 after an academy hearing stemming from allegations of sexual assault, is to appear Thursday in federal court to argue that the midshipman should be allowed to permanently return to the Kings Point school this semester.

The lawsuit names as defendants the academy; its superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis; the U.S. Department of Transportation; and the U.S. Maritime Administration, the agency within the department that operates the 75-year-old service academy. It was filed March 28 in the Eastern District in Central Islip.

The midshipman, who is identified as “John Doe,” says the accusations of sexual assault are false and alleges that the academy’s disciplinary hearing, held Feb. 9, violated his constitutional right to due process.

The midshipman and the woman he was accused of assaulting appeared at that hearing, which was held on campus and was not open to the public. The woman is not a USMMA student.

Gerald Lefcourt, a Manhattan attorney representing the midshipman, did not immediately return a call for comment.

The U.S. attorney’s office represents USMMA, Helis and the government agencies named in the suit. John Marzulli, a spokesman for that office, said he could not comment.

Lefcourt, in the complaint, is seeking to compel the school to reinstate the midshipman, allowing him to complete his course of study and be eligible to graduate in June.

“In the #metoo era, there is often a rush to judgment followed by a flawed investigative and adjudicative procedure that presumes guilt and requires the accused to prove his innocence. That is exactly what happened here,” the complaint says.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bianco granted the midshipman’s request that he be allowed to resume his classes at the academy for the time being.

Newsday reported in January 2017 that sexual assault and sexual harassment, bullying and coercion had persisted at the service academy for nearly a decade, despite the government’s records of complaints and corrective efforts made at USMMA.

In June 2017, Helis placed seven seniors on the men’s soccer team on deferred graduate status and suspended the academy’s soccer program, pending a federal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct on a team bus in fall 2016.

Those midshipmen sued in federal court, saying they had been denied due process. A U.S. District Court judge granted permission for the students to participate in their graduation ceremony. Their bachelor’s degrees were conferred later, but some commissioning documents continue to be withheld. That case is pending.

Helis reinstated the soccer program in February.

In the case to be heard Thursday, the midshipman was accused of sexually assaulting a woman who accompanied him in August to the Ring Dance, an annual event where seniors receive their class rings. The event was held in Manhattan.

The midshipman says he engaged in consensual sexual activity with the woman after the dance, according to the complaint.

The academy investigated the incident and Doe in January was called to attend a superintendent’s disciplinary hearing.

According to documents filed in the case, the woman says she does not remember most of the encounter. Witnesses who testified at the academy’s hearing said she was intoxicated, and one — another USMMA student — “instructed” the midshipman “not to engage in sexual intercourse” with her, the documents say.

The complaint alleges that Helis served as both prosecutor for the academy and as judge, was hostile to Doe, did not follow the school’s policies and procedures, and denied Doe the right to have two attorneys present, making one sit outside the hearing room.

Helis found Doe had violated rules and regulations governing midshipmen and suspended him until the 2018-19 school year.

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