House vote expected on Coast Guard court

Administrative law system under scrutiny as biased against professional mariners

April 23, 2008|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN REPORTER

The House of Representatives is expected to vote as early as today on a measure that would dismantle the Coast Guard's administrative law system, stripping the service of its judicial role in prosecuting misconduct and negligence charges against civilian mariners in response to claims of bias in the Baltimore-based courts.

The measure would transfer all of the Coast Guard's maritime cases to the National Transportation Safety Board beginning in October. Coast Guard investigators typically bring more than 600 cases each year against professional mariners accused of drug use, incompetence, negligence or other infractions while working on the water.

The legislation was proposed by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House committee responsible for oversight of the Coast Guard, and added to a sweeping Coast Guard budget bill last night. It follows an investigation by The Sun last year that showed that out of roughly 6,300 cases brought over eight years, mariners prevailed in just 14. Most of the cases were settled or resulted in guilty pleas without reaching a courtroom, and some were dismissed. Overall, Coast Guard prosecutors had a 97 percent success rate.

The June 24 report in The Sun also detailed claims from Jeffie J. Massey, a former Coast Guard administrative law judge, that she was told by Chief Judge Joseph N. Ingolia to rule in the agency's favor regardless of the evidence presented in her courtroom. Massey said she overheard a fellow judge say that he feared for his job if he didn't rule in the Coast Guard's favor.

Massey's allegations spawned three federal lawsuits, now on appeal after being dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, that U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan said "raised a big pile of smelly stuff" that "doesn't pass the smell test."

Coast Guard officials said yesterday that they have full confidence in Ingolia and offered a sweeping denial of the allegations that Massey made as part of the lawsuits.

"Her affidavit is inaccurate and is false as to most material facts," said Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a spokesman at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.

"The public record does not support any claim of systemwide bias and prejudice exhibited by Coast Guard judges against mariners," he added.

Reached by telephone yesterday, Massey responded: "If they want to deny that what I said is true, why doesn't someone do what I did and raise their right hand and talk about it under oath?"

While the Coast Guard has resisted the move to strip its responsibilities, attorneys who appear before the system's administrative law judges say they are in favor of a change.

"The system is so broken right now, and there's so little confidence among the mariners that they're going to get a fair shake, I don't think there's any way to fix it," said Ralph J. Mellusi, a New York attorney who has handled cases before the Coast Guard.

The proposed change would let the Coast Guard's seven administrative law judges assist the NTSB with maritime cases until October 2009, but then would require them to reapply for their jobs if they hope to transfer to the new system.

The Coast Guard's administrative law system employs 26 people, including 11 at the main office in the Custom House on Gay Street in Baltimore.

Carter said the legislation's potential impact on the staff is unclear, but added: "The worst-case scenario is that many Baltimore employees may lose their jobs."

robert.little@baltsun.com

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