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Officials: DOJ investigating sexual misconduct on USMMA soccer bus

Leaders say probe in Eastern District U.S. attorney’s office is separate from academy’s recently concluded administrative hearings for seven former students.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), left, and Rep.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), left, and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), second from right, speak after a meeting of the USMMA Board of Visitors at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2017. King is chairman of the congressional oversight panel and Suozzi is a member of the board. Photo Credit: Uli Seit

The Department of Justice is investigating alleged sexual misconduct on a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy soccer team bus in September 2016, the leader of the federal Maritime Administration and the Kings Point school’s superintendent told a congressional oversight panel Monday.

The probe, which began in the federal Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General in February, also is ongoing in the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District, said retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, who heads the Maritime Administration, or MARAD — the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that oversees the academy. That Justice Department jurisdiction covers Long Island as well as Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Buzby and Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, told members of the congressional Board of Visitors that the federal investigation is separate from administrative hearings that the school held for seven former members of USMMA’s soccer team who faced allegations of abusing and bullying a freshman player on the bus.

Newsday confirmed last week that all of those former students, whom Helis had barred from graduating in June, recently were awarded their diplomas and other certificates after going through individual, closed hearings at the academy.

“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,” Helis told the congressional panel. “There is still the potential that there could be a criminal case emerging from this some time in the future. . . . We have almost no visibility on that, other than the awareness that there is an ongoing investigation that today remains.”

Buzby said there is “an investigation going on by the Eastern District” that was distinct from the academy’s “executive board” proceedings with students.

“And we do not have any information on that,” he said. “I have not even been briefed on those proceedings.”

John Marzulli, an Eastern District spokesman, said, “No comment” in response to an inquiry about the remarks.

A spokesman for the Office of Inspector General referred inquiries to the Justice Department.

Helis, in explaining the process to the panel, said that when the Office of Inspector General has completed an investigation, the agency can refer potentially criminal matters to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District.

The Justice Department, with that information, then would conduct its probe and determine whether there is enough evidence to bring a case, he said.

Parent Jay Burkhardt of Cutchogue, whose son, David, was among the seven former soccer players who recently graduated, questioned Helis at the meeting and encouraged the school to release its findings from any investigation into the matter.

“Is there any reason why that investigation can’t be released to the Board of Visitors?” he asked. “Is there anything that we’re hiding with this investigation?”

In reply, Helis cited student privacy.

Buzby and Helis were not available Monday for further questions or comment.

The Board of Visitors, currently chaired by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), generally meets twice a year and last convened in July in Washington.

Both Monday and at the July meeting, board members said the academy has made strides in addressing the issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment, which have occurred on campus and during the Sea Year, USMMA’s hallmark training program for midshipmen.

Newsday reported in January that sexual assault and sexual harassment, bullying and coercion have persisted at the 74-year-old federal service academy for nearly a decade, despite the government’s own records of complaints and corrective efforts.

King called the academy an “outstanding institution” and said, “A lot of progress had been made in the last year. Issues have been confronted head-on.”

But both King and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) were critical of the academy, expressing annoyance that they learned of the seven former soccer players’ graduations from media inquiries.

King also said he is concerned that only about a dozen shipping companies worked with the academy during the Sea Year, while 60 had been used before the program was suspended on commercial ships between June 2016 and March because of sexual-misconduct concerns.

Administration officials said there has been progress in recent years in easing the process of reporting for victims of sexual assault.

“There is more confidence in the system,” Helis said. “They feel more comfortable coming forward.”

Helis also said it is “very, very likely that we will have a soccer program going into fall 2018.” He suspended the NCAA Division III program in June, pending the outcome of the Office of Inspector General’s investigation.

An announcement is not expected until after the new year, he said.

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