The US government could have investigated sexual assault in the federal merchant marine academy a decade ago, but shut efforts down, a former Maritime Administration (MarAd) general counsel alleges.

Denise Rucker Krepp said she requested the Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector general to look into reports of sexual assault at the US Merchant Marine Academy in 2011 — five years before a sexual assault scandal forced the university to shutter its at-sea training programme.

Her attempts were foiled by her superiors and she was forced to resign, she claimed.

"Do I believe that if they had done something 10 years ago, that would have prevented [the subsequent assaults]? Hell's bells, yes I do," Krepp told TradeWinds.

A memo published by Krepp shows her contacting then DOT inspector general Calvin Scovel on 20 September 2011. In the document, she notified him that she had heard credible reports of sexual assault occurring on campus and at sea, and that these were covered up by the school's administration.

She has now told TradeWinds that the investigation was blocked, she was berated over the phone by former transportation secretary Ray LaHood and was made into what she described as a "figurehead" for the next four months.

Then she was told by deputy transportation secretary John Porcari that she could resign her position or be fired.

Krepp said she chose to resign.

Porcari is now the port envoy on President Joe Biden's Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force.

"I was appalled," Krepp said. "I knew about multiple sexual assaults at the school and the students wouldn't tell us. I had seen enough of the data that the students were petrified because they were scared of retaliation.

"Kids are being raped ... This has nothing to do with loyalty, this has to do with criminal activity."

Scovel did not return a call requesting comment.

LaHood's chief of staff during his tenure at the DOT, Joan DeBoer, denied that Krepp was retaliated against and said the inspector general, an independent office, simply declined to move forward with her request.

"Our team worked diligently from day one to address the systemic problems at the US Merchant Marine Academy, including investigation and removal of individuals allegedly engaged in inappropriate behaviour toward students," DeBoer said in an email.

'It's still a significant problem'

The US Department of Transportation in Washington DC. The Maritime Administration is part of the department. Photo: kmf164/Creative Commons 2.0

"Solving problems at the academy was always a priority, especially when it involved the safety of students. We would never punish a whistleblower and we certainly did not do anything of the kind here."

The DOT said several steps were taken that year following a congressionally mandated survey of sexual assault at the academy, including hiring for positions to prevent sexual misconduct.

"The allegations were taken to the inspector general, an independent official, who did not pursue an investigation," a department spokesperson said.

"Sexual assault and harassment continue to be significant problems at the academy and industry-wide. MarAd, under this administration, is taking a number of steps now to address that."

The academy's onboard training programme known as Sea Year was shuttered in 2016 amid reports of sexual misconduct. It was relaunched in 2017 with new procedures to protect cadets working on board US-flag ships.

But issues appear to have persisted. Last month, a current academy student published a first-person account of her rape at sea and said several other female students have also been raped.

It was posted to the Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy website, run by academy alumnus and attorney Ryan Melogy, who pitches it as a mariner rights organisation.

The DOT said in the aftermath of the rape allegation that it had forwarded the essay to the US Coast Guard Investigative Service.

Deputy transportation secretary Polly Trottenberg and acting maritime administrator Lucinda Lessley voiced support for the victim in a letter published on 2 October. They reiterated their organisations' zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment.

Lessley has since visited the academy.

TradeWinds has reported on a Maersk Line Ltd captain who might lose his licence over allegations that he acted inappropriately towards two academy students and a lower-ranking officer, including groping one of the students and the officer.


September 2011: Denise Krepp sends a memo to the US Department of Transportation inspector general requesting an investigation into sexual assault at the US Merchant Marine Academy.

February 2012: Krepp is reportedly told to resign or be fired. She resigns.

June 2016: USMMA's Sea Year programme is suspended

February 2017: Sea Year is reinstated with new protections for students.

September 2021: An account from a current USMMA student detailing her rape at sea is published.