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Newsday (New York)


A former U.S. Merchant Marine Academy soccer player, whose allegations of sexual assault by several other team members in fall 2016 have been under federal investigation, has put the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Maritime Administration on notice that he intends to pursue a legal claim for $5 million for personal injuries.

The claim, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act by New Jersey-based attorney Thomas Grasso on behalf of the former midshipman referred to as "John Doe," alleges "negligent conduct" by members of the academy's coaching staff and certain former seniors on the men's soccer team, as well as the athletic department and the Kings Point school's administration.

The student, who was a freshman in fall 2016, was subjected to "unwanted, nonconsensual, forceful sexual battery and assault, false imprisonment, hazing, subjection to ridicule and embarrassment, extreme acute and chronic psychological and emotional distress," the claim says.

The Federal Tort Claims Act allows citizens to pursue civil actions against government agencies.

Grasso, in an interview, said he sent the claim by certified mail to the federal agencies earlier this month and received delivery confirmations on April 16. He said he signed it on his client's behalf on April 9.

The U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, on Friday acknowledged receipt of the claim, but would not comment further.

The U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District was involved in the ongoing investigation of alleged sexual misconduct on a soccer team bus in September 2016, according to statements by retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, head of the Maritime Administration, at the November public meeting of the USMMA Board of Visitors, the academy's congressional oversight panel.

The probe had begun in the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General in February 2017, federal officials said in June after Rear Adm. James A. Helis barred seven members of the men's soccer team from graduating because they were subjects of the investigation.

The status of the inspector general's probe was not clear Friday.

Grasso, in the personal-injury claim, said his client was contacted in February 2017 by the inspector general's office and had been informed that his case was the subject of investigation. The lawyer also wrote that the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District has confirmed that the former midshipman's case is the subject of a Department of Justice grand jury inquiry.

John Marzulli, spokesman for the Eastern District in Central Islip, declined to comment Friday on the claim.

The Board of Visitors, which has 17 members, including Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), is scheduled to hold a public meeting Monday in Washington, D.C.

Grasso, in addition to filing the personal-injury claim, sent a letter to the Transportation Department and to members of the Board of Visitors, asking the panel to fully investigate his client's allegations.

"I write to express my outrage at the conduct and culture that has been permitted to exist at the Academy with ongoing incidents of hazing and harassment," he wrote.

The four-page letter, which Grasso also sent to Newsday, details his client's account of his experiences when he was on the soccer team as part of a "hazing culture" of bullying, taunts and insulting comments. It includes a segment of a "restricted report" that the midshipman submitted to the academy in which he describes being physically and sexually assaulted on a team bus on Sept. 2, 2016. The student left the school in late October 2016.

King, immediate past chairman of the Board of Visitors, said Friday he had received the letter and told Sen. Debra Fischer (R-Neb.), who now chairs the panel, about it. Fischer "is definitely going to raise the issue" at the board's meeting Monday, he said.

Fischer's office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

"Obviously, the way it was described was horrible," King said of the former student's account. "I have to see what all the sides have to say."

Suozzi did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

Reports of sexual misconduct at the Merchant Marine Academy forced temporary suspension of some portions of the academic program in 2016 and were a factor in the school's independent accreditor placing it on warning status for a time.

In January 2017, Newsday reported that sexual assault and sexual harassment, bullying and coercion had persisted at the federal service academy for nearly a decade, despite the government's own records of complaints and corrective efforts.

Current and former students, in interviews, spoke of a campus culture in which they felt discouraged about speaking up and the fear of being ostracized if they did.

Subsequently, members of the Board of Visitors, at meetings in July and November, said the academy had confronted the issues and was making positive strides.

The allegations of sexual misconduct involving the men's soccer team became public in June when Helis, citing the DOT Office of Inspector General's investigation, placed seven soccer players, all seniors, on deferred graduate status shortly before the 2017 commencement and suspended the NCAA Division III soccer program until further notice.

Those seven seniors filed suit in federal court in Central Islip against the academy, Helis, the Transportation Department and MARAD, saying their constitutional right to due process had been violated.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler, now deceased, allowed the students to walk in the graduation ceremony. They later received their degrees and other documents after participating in individual, closed administrative hearings at the academy and completing an assignment, Newsday confirmed in November.

Last week, that federal lawsuit was dismissed by agreement of all parties, according to court documents filed Thursday.

In the days before the dismissal, Grasso sought permission to intervene in the case. U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert denied the request, court documents show.

Shaun Hogan, one of the Jericho-based attorneys representing five of the former soccer players who brought the lawsuit, said Friday of the dismissal, "Basically, everyone collectively agreed that this was the best way to go."

Hogan had no comment on the personal-injury claim filed by Grasso.

Helis reinstated the soccer program in mid-February, with the team to begin offseason games this spring.

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April 22, 2018


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