An odoriferous affair

November 15, 2007

After reviewing merchant seamen's complaints about the Coast Guard's system for disciplining mariners, a federal judge in New Orleans was blunt in her assessment of the process: It didn't "pass the smell test." The comment by U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan should serve as a warning to Coast Guard officials who have defended the process against charges that it has been neither fair nor unbiased. It may be time to clean house.

Judge Berrigan made her remarks last week in connection with a lawsuit filed by three mariners who challenged the Coast Guard's administrative law process, a civil proceeding that hears evidence against mariners charged with drug use, misconduct, negligence or other violations on the water.

The allegations of unfairness were reported this year by The Sun's Robert Little, whose review of the process revealed a former administrative law judge's claim that she had been told by the chief judge to rule in the Coast Guard's favor. The newspaper's review of thousands of charges against seamen found that the service prevailed 97 percent of the time.

The Coast Guard system has continued despite the complaints, and Chief Administrative Law Judge Joseph N. Ingolia, who is at the center of the controversy, was reappointed to his position last month.

Meanwhile, Judge Berrigan issued her negative comments about the process even as she dismissed the mariners' lawsuit, saying they had to wage their fight first within the Coast Guard appeals system. But she found evidence in the case to be "disturbing," describing it as "a big pile of smelly stuff." That's a strong condemnation.

Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings was so outraged by the complaints that he has proposed eliminating the Coast Guard administrative law system; the National Transportation Safety Board would instead oversee disciplinary cases against mariners. On top of that, the Government Accountability Office is planning to investigate the system. That's a positive development, because the GAO may well provide the first objective review of the allegations of pro-Coast Guard bias in the process.

At the very least, confidence in the system has eroded. The GAO should pursue its investigation expeditiously so that concerns about mariners' due-process rights can be resolved and the integrity of the process restored.

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