A nonprofit law group is trying to help maritime midshipmen facing assault at sea

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The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, part of the Transportation Department, has suspended a program that puts students at sea for a year. That followed reports of sexual assault of students aboard commercial vessels. Members of Congress have called on the academy to establish a plan for dealing with assault. According to J. Ryan Melogy, the founder and chief legal officer of Maritime Legal Aid and Advocacy, the stories keep coming in. Melogy joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with details.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Mr. Melogy. Good to have you on.

Ryan Melogy: Hey, good morning. Thank you very much for having me on, Tom.

Tom Temin: And just tell us a little bit about your organization, Maritime Legal Aid and Advocacy. You’re connected to this issue and in what way?

Ryan Melogy: I attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and graduated from the academy in 2004. I participated in the sea year program. I spent a year at sea; I graduated with a third mate’s unlimited tonnage license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, and then I went out and worked as a professional mariner on the big cargo ships. Eventually, I earned my chief mate’s license. And in total, I’ve worked on about a little over 20 different ships in my career going into sea. I also went to law school at, I attended law school at the University of Virginia. And then I went after law school I practiced corporate law in New York for a few years. After about five years in New York, I went back to sea at the end of 2014, after not having worked on a ship in over five years. And I just was looking for a change of pace and wanted to travel for a while and I was burned out from New York, I got on a ship owned and operated by Maersk Line, Limited.

Tom Temin: That’s the biggest line of all, right?

Ryan Melogy: Right, the subsidiary of the giant Danish company. And I had a very bad and unusual experience on that vessel with a senior officer. I was a second mate and a chief mate on that ship, you know, he sexually harassed me and others, and he groped me twice. Once when I was in an enclosed lifeboat, strapped in, he reached over and groped, came up behind me a few days after that and groped me. And he subjected the USMMA cadets who were on the vessel to a pattern of outrageous sexual harassment and sexual abuse. I saw him, you know, one of the things that he did was, he took a pen from the bridges communal pen jar, and pulled his pants down on the bridge in front of this 19-year-old kid, and stuck the pen into his own rectum and then made the kid smell it, and then put it back into the pen jar that I had to use to make my logbook entries and wouldn’t tell us which pen it was. I ended up writing a report when I got off the ship, or I wrote the report and I gave it to the captain the last day that I was on the ship. And I got off the ship in Italy, and those cadets stayed on. And I wrote all the stuff that this guy had done. And I found out a few months later, maybe six months later, that nothing happened to him. He didn’t get fired, which absolutely shocked me. And because like my report was so detailed and had such, you know, all these specific incidents that all they had to do was ask these cadets about it. And they would have told him the stuff happened. So I knew that something had happened in that report. I knew that some kind of a cover up had been conducted. You know, it’s one of those things where you’re like, what am I going to do about it? I have a life to live. And do I want to get myself involved in that? How would you even go about it? So I just sort of put it on the back burner my mind. And at the end of 2018, I found out that he actually got promoted to captain. So instead of getting fired, now you have this guy who’s a very predatory person, who Maersk promoted to captain knowing that he had done all this stuff. Sure. So at that point, I began pursuing and I said, alright, I’m going to find out like what happened to my report. And that’s how all this started.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Ryan Melogy. He is the founder and chief legal officer of Maritime Legal Aid and advocacy. What do you want who to do about what, here?

Ryan Melogy: Five years ago, there was another senior suspension. That was the first one. Really, absolutely nothing came out of it. The problems were actually made worse for various reasons. But the United States Coast Guard wasn’t involved in that process at all. And the Coast Guard is the only law enforcement, right, on a ship. That’s American soil — any kind of sexual assault that happens, any kind of assault that happens on an American ship on the high seas, it’s Coast Guard has jurisdiction. They’re the only agency that can do anything about it, other than the FBI. And so I want to see the Coast Guard play a really big role in this. And I don’t think they’re going to do that until Congress forces them to do that. That’s a huge part of it is getting the Coast Guard involved in making them take action against these predators, against the companies, against everyone involved. I went through this trial process related to the story I just told you in this June of this year. And we’re still waiting. After two and a half years since the investigation again, we’re still waiting for the opinion to be released on to find out if this guy is gonna lose his license or not. If he does, it’ll be the first time in more than 30 years that the U.S. Coast Guard took a marine to a full suspension or revocation hearing process and took away their license or credential. There’s no one in the industry, if you ask around the industry, no one can point to one person who’s ever actually been punished for sexual misconduct. Like it just doesn’t happen. And so that has to change.

Tom Temin: Let me ask you this. I mean, you mentioned you’re on a Maersk ship, which is a Danish company. So what sway can the Coast Guard have over a foreign-flagged vessel with a foreign crew?

Ryan Melogy: So these vessels, the subsidiaries that operate the American flag Maersk vessels is called Maersk Line, Limited and its headquarters is in Virginia. So it’s it’s an American company. These are American vessels. They’re, I think, Maersk has, you know, subsidiaries all over the world. That’s how that’s operated. So they have direct oversight, you know, over these vessels.

Tom Temin: So therefore, there needs to be kind of a mechanism, then, I would think, for formalizing the way reports get moved upstream, and then for dealing with them when they do reach authority. Yeah. And that’s not happening now.

Ryan Melogy: Yeah, so one of the things that we’ve really been talking about a lot for the past couple years is, there’s a law called 46 USC 10104. And it became part of the U.S. Code in 1990. And it was a result of about a 10-year effort by a group called the Women’s Maritime Association, which was based in Washington state. It was the first like women’s support group for mariners. And they got like GAO investigations launched, and in the course of these GAO investigations into investigating sexual assault and sexual misconduct against women in the maritime industry, the GAO discovered that there was no law that required sex crimes that were reported to captains or to shipping companies to actually be reported to law enforcement. And so that was the big recommendation of those GAO reports that came out was, hey, this is a common sense reporting law. If someone tells you they’re raped on your ship, you should have to report that to law enforcement. So that became the law in 1990. And what we did through the Fear of Information Act requests that we’ve done with the Coast Guard is prove that literally no one has reported anything in 30 years pursuant to this law, the Coast Guard never even took the law and turned it into regulations. Like they never went through the rule-making process to implement the regulations. There was no additional funding that came with it. Just a huge responsibility.

Tom Temin: And what about the Merchant Marine Academy? What can it do, or should it do? Because I noticed it in one of the reports by a female who was sexually assaulted said on your site, she does not think that sea year should be canceled, because it’s really a great experience. And you know, most people don’t have this type of thing happen. What can the Merchant Marine Academy do, and what can be done, not so much to report and prosecute, but maybe to prevent all of this in the first place?

Ryan Melogy: Well, the Merchant Marine Academy projects the image that they have control over this program. They project the image to applicants to the academy, to parents, to, you know, the public that somehow this is just an extension of the academy experience and they have control over it. They have no control over what happens on those ships. They don’t have control over who gets on those ships. They can’t control how the companies handle reports of sexual misconduct. All they can really do is sort of once people come to them with reports, handle them properly, and try to help them hold these people accountable. But they don’t even do that. You’ll never fix the problem with sea year until you fix the problems with the industry because you’re just sending these kids out into this industry.

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