OSC Says Coast Guard has Addressed Unlawful NDAs which Chilled Sexual Assault Whistleblowing

Coast Guard

On June 5, the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) announced that the U.S. Coast Guard has taken corrective actions “to address its use of unlawful non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) entered into with sexual assault survivors and others.”

In 2023, CNN reported that an internal Coast Guard investigation, dubbed “Operation Fouled Anchor,” had “uncovered a dark history of rapes, assaults and other serious misconduct being ignored and, at times, covered up by high-ranking officials” but that the findings of this report were kept secret.

Following this reporting, in April 2024, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote to Coast Guard Admiral Linda Fagan claiming that a Committee investigation had uncovered documents showing that the Coast Guard was illegally prohibiting sexual assault victims and others from disclosing information to Congress about the assaults and the mishandling of investigations into them.

“Specifically, the Coast Guard implemented non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) purporting to prohibit victims and others from disclosing information about sexual assaults and related investigations, to anyone, including Congress,” wrote Cruz.”

Senator Cruz alerted the OSC to the Committee findings and the OSC subsequently opened an investigation into whether or not the NDAs violated federal law by failing to include language that explicitly protects whistleblower activity.

According to the OSC, soon after launching its investigation, it learned that the Coast Guard had addressed the unlawful NDAs and had “notified all current and former employees that any NDA executed with the USCG was subject to the requirements of the anti-gag order provision of the law.”

“Specifically, the USCG issued a public notice of correction, accessible to all current and former employees, with a contract rider incorporating the mandatory language outlining whistleblower rights into all previously executed NDAs,” the OSC reports. “Further, the USCG agreed to training, to be conducted by OSC, which will include a review of the anti-gag requirements, as well as all other prohibited personnel practices.”

“I thank Senator Cruz for bringing this important matter to our attention and anticipate that the measures taken by the U.S. Coast Guard will help avoid future violations,” said Special Counsel Hampton Dellinger. “I also want to thank Travis Millsaps, our senior advisor for legislative affairs and policy, who assisted with this matter. Travis will be assisting my esteemed predecessor Henry Kerner as Henry joins the Merit Systems Protection Board. I am grateful to Travis for his work on this matter and his years of service to OSC.”

Dellinger was confirmed as Special Counsel by the Senate in February. During a Senate confirmation hearing in November, Dellinger expressed his commitment towards protecting whistleblowers and voiced his support for an annual National Whistleblower Day.

“Federal government whistleblowers deserve and are legally entitled to robust protection from retaliation,” Dellinger said. “And my overriding goal will be to contribute to greater trust in government including by protecting whistleblowers vigorously.”

“I strongly agree we should have an annual designated National Whistleblowers Day to acknowledge their inestimable contributions to government accountability and transparency,” Dellinger added.

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