Downplaying sexual assault. First Helis. Now Newsday. The spin machine is revving up.

Correction:  In the original version of this post, I stated that the the Newsday article did not indicate that anyone from the government’s side had been asked for comment. I was working from a printed out copy of the article that had cut off one line from the story at the bottom of the page — a line that stated that a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said that he could not comment. I’ve  updated the post to correct it. However, that mistake on my part does not change the substantive conclusion of my post — that someone fed the reporter a significantly downplayed version of the facts that resulted in a serious sexual assault being described as a violation of “rules and regulations.” I apologize for the error and consistent with this blog’s commitment to transparency, I show the changes that I made to correct the error in the post below. Deletions are shown in strikeout and additions are shown within brackets { }.

On Monday, Superintendent James A. Helis will be speaking at the Academy’s Congressional Board of Visitors (“BOV”) meeting. With the news breaking this week that Helis had found a midshipman guilty of date rape but only set him back for a year rather than expelling him, Monday’s meeting promises to be livelier than normal.

Rumors were already filtering back to me about how Teflon Jim Helis was going to try to spin his way out of this one so that he could deflect criticism at the BOV meeting. Sources familiar with how things work in Wiley Hall had told me to be on the lookout for carefully parsed language suggesting that Helis had found the midshipman guilty of violating the Academy’s sexual assault policy rather than actual sexual assault. (For example, a midshipman that fails to report a sexual assault committed by another midshipman has violated the Academy’s sexual assault policy but clearly has not committed sexual assault.) That’s some fancy word-smithing. However, it would be hard for someone on the BOV to challenge such an answer because if asked for more detail, Helis could hide behind the fact that the case is in litigation and say that he could not comment further.

I was skeptical of my source and even considered the possibility that someone in Wiley Hall was trying to set me up. I’m not sure why I was skeptical.  After all, I described here how, when the Academy learned in late Spring 2016 that its accreditation agency was about to announce that the Academy had failed 5 accreditation standards and was going to be put on accreditation warning, Helis deflected the failure — which directly criticized his leadership — by claiming that the accreditation warning was due to SASH issues during sea year.  Helis actually lied when he said the accreditation determination blamed SASH during sea year as the reason for the accreditation warning. That lie led to the “stand down” of sea year at the Academy. I made a public challenge to pay $100,000 to anyone who could prove that Helis was telling the truth and no one even attempted to accept the challenge. Helis finally admitted that his claim wasn’t true five months later. Of course, by then, irreparable damage to sea year and the Academy had been done. But Helis’ job was safe. So if Helis would lie and destroy sea year and the reputation of the institution he serves just to deflect incoming criticism, why should I have been skeptical that he would try to word-smith the severity of the finding of guilt regarding the midshipman charged with sexual assault?

In any event, that skepticism came to a screeching halt last night when the Long Island Newsday came out with an article about the court case. The article wasn’t particularly newsworthy: No one was willing to be quoted for the article; and this blog had broken the story four days earlier. But then I noticed the last sentence of the article:

“Helis found [John] Doe [the pseudonym for the accused midshipman] had violated rules and regulations governing midshipmen and suspended him until the 2018-19 school year.”

Say what? How did a date rape get spun as a mere violation of rules and regulations? The article makes it sound like Doe’s belt buckle was tarnished and his shirt was untucked. Wouldn’t you think the focus of the article would have been the fact that someone was found guilty of sexual assault and given a slap on the wrist?

Now let’s do a little reverse engineering on the Newsday article.

The article tells us that the lawyer for Doe “did not immediately return a call for comment.” It then mentions that the U.S. Attorney represents the Academy, Helis, and the government agencies named in the suit. Curiously, however, it does not mention whether or not the U.S. Attorney or anyone from the Academy was asked to comment {although it indicates that a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said that he could not comment, the article does not explain where it got the information that the midshipman was found guilty of merely violating “rules and regulations.”}

Folks, that’s a huge red flag.

If the reporter had attempted, unsuccessfully, to speak with someone from the government, the article would have contained a similar “did not immediately return a call for comment statement.” {The source for the “rules and regulations” quote obviously is not the U.S. Attorney spokesman who could not comment.} And, of course, if the reporter had reached someone who was willing to talk either on the record or without attribution, the article would have said that. The silence speaks volumes and tells us all we need to know—someone on the government’s side wanted to spin the story without anyone knowing it. Someone spoke to the reporter on “deep background” to get a face-saving message out and did not want the public to know that anyone from the Academy provided the information.

The face-saving message is found in that final sentence where it says that Helis found Doe had violated “rules and regulations.” That doesn’t sound too bad does it? That’s not going to make anyone upset that Helis allowed someone he convicted of date rape to be reinstated to the Academy next year rather than expelled, is it? That’s not going to grab headlines or have Senators demanding that Helis explain why he allowed someone he had convicted of sexual assault to return to the Academy next year to complete his graduation requirements.

Now you might ask, is it possible that the Newsday reporter found the language for that final sentence in the court filings? Absolutely not. The court file contains Helis’ actual written finding:

After careful deliberation, I have determined, by a preponderance of evidence, with respect to each enumerated charge as follows:

1. You violated Superintendent Instruction 2016-02, Sexual Assault, Dating Violence, Domestic Violence, Stalking, Prevention Education, and Response Policy dated 20 May 2016, by sexually assaulting [name redacted] in a hotel room at the Nomo Soho in New York City after the United States Merchant Marine Academy Ring Dance on or about 12 and/or 13 August 2017;

That’s one hell of a rule violation.

Newsday got played. Let’s hope that the BOV, Congress, MARAD and DOT don’t get played.  Hopefully, something will finally stick to Teflon Jim. And hopefully DOT/MARAD will finally stick it to him.

25 Comments

  1. Thank goodness Helis had to recuse himself for our hearings. Who knows what he would have done/tried to do. Thanks for the good work you do Andy.

  2. This is why your blog is so important to the Academy. The time you put into actually doing the hard research is what makes your factual statement unassailable. I may have disagreed with you on policy from time to time, but never on your statements of facts.
    If your quote above is correct and complete, as I expect it is, Helis found the mid guilty of SEXUALLLY ASSAULTING a woman, no if, ands or buts. If the mid did it, expulsion is warranted. The only issue is whether or not the hearing was fair and that will have to be determined by the court.
    Again, I still strongly believe that charges of such a serious nature should not be handled by college administrators, other than to perhaps providing for a student safety based suspension pending the outcome of a true criminal investigation. And, in fairness to Helis, the suspect and biased structure at the Academy for handling these matters seems to be prevalent at colleges and universities throughout the country, not just at USMMA.

    • I just posted a correction regarding what was contained in the Newsday article. But, the quote as to the finding of guilt comes directly from the document signed by Helis and is 100% accurate. The document was filed as an exhibit in the federal court proceeding.

  3. What happened to the person who was assaulted? That person will have to be on campus with her/his convicted attacker?

    • The victim is not a midshipman. But, that still doesn’t, in my opinion, justify a setback rather than an expulsion. There are other potential victims on campus.

      (As I’ve noted repeatedly, I’m not opining on the merits of the claim. All I know on the merits is that Helis found that the woman was sexually assaulted in a hotel room and, if Helis believed that, I don’t understand how a setback can be deemed appropriate.)

  4. [Edited by the moderator to remove a statement that could not be verified] Edited section shown in { }.

    As a parent of college age children I find {the situation} at this school unbelievable. This perpetuates the rape culture and the re-victimization of the young woman. How can a school that pretends to hold its students to a higher standard give the perpetrator a slap on the wrist while leaving his victims life in pieces. He should have been expelled immediately on a finding of guilt. And it’s my understanding from the facts above that he appealed the decision and it was upheld and still he’s back at school. This says much about the complete administration and clearly about their procedures in place for dealing with these cases. As you stated above a convicted rapist has the same punishment as lower offenses.

    • To be clear about the process, the accused sought reconsideration (kind of like an appeal, but to the same judge, Helis) and Helis denied reconsideration. He was ordered off campus until the last trimester of next year (and required to undergo counseling) and departed campus. He then went to court and got the temporary restraining order, which allowed him back on campus immediately, pending the court’s decision on the request for preliminary injunction. That decision is expected to be issued any moment now.

  5. It’s going to be interesting.

    Regardless of how the court itself rules, does anyone know if there is a general feeling among the regiment regarding the matter. Do they think that the accused was shafted by the process and he should be reinstated? Or, do they think that he got a fair hearing and should be expelled. Either version is acceptable to me. What would not be acceptable is if they think he got a fair hearing, was found to have sexually assaulted someone and that he should just be suspended for a year.

    • As I just posted, the court denied the preliminary injunction. My sense of it from reaction I’ve been hearing is that most midshipmen are bewildered by the idea that someone was found to have committed a serious sexual assault — date rape — and yet not expelled. I think attitudes about the process that was used are mixed depending upon what they’ve heard about the case and whether they are friends with either the accused or the midshipmen who testified that they told the accused that the alleged victim was too drunk to be able to consent. There is another aspect about the case that I haven’t had time to post about yet that also influences the midshipmen’s view of the process — that deals with whether Helis failed to follow the procedure to protect witnesses from retaliation or to give the witnesses amnesty for giving truthful testimony that implicates the witnesses in a disciplinary violation. Stay tuned . . .

  6. Nobody should be upset at the mids who testified that they warned the accused that she was too drunk to consent. Even the accused admits that he was in fact warned. Unless something else is going on that hasn’t come to light yet ,the witnesses seem to have acted honorably and properly in both their actions that night and in their testimony. They should be not be ostracized. The innocence or guilt of the accused is really subject to other contested facts and procedural issues that are beyond the knowledge or competence of the midshipmen witnesses

    • You (logically) assumed the retaliation I was referring to was conduct by other midshipmen towards the midshipmen who testified. Actually, I’m referring to alleged retaliation by the accused. More importantly, I’m referring to Helis’ conduct in not enforcing his SASH procedures, which specifically state that “every effort will be made to protect” people participating in the SASH complaint procedure from retaliation.

      • This is why i think college administrators should not be the ones conducting these hearings and why they should let law enforcement pros do their jobs. There’s simply too many moving parts that an “educator” is not capable of keeping up with. My disagreements with Helis aside, he is in a no win situation, as are other college administrators, when it comes to such serious criminal accusations.

  7. Wasn’t the accused found not guilty in criminal proceedings? Odd to find the Academy as the only arbiter in this situation .

    • There have been no criminal proceedings. The NYPD investigated the incident but has not yet brought charges. I have received/seen conflicting information as to whether the NYPD closed the case without bringing charges or whether the case is still open. Based upon the totality of what I’ve received/seen, I suspect that it is still open; but that’s just a suspicion.

  8. I believe these recent cases with soccer, the other Midshipman who have been tried in Helis’s court and found guilty in cases where the Regiment knew the actual story that the Sup refused to believe is proof that the academy needs to fall under either the UCMJ or some other investigating/justice board. Having him be the Judge, Jury, and Executioner in an institution like this is just wrong. Especially with cases that could ruin a persons life. It makes me sick to think that with this culture that is present at our school that I could be wrongly accused and thrown out without proper due process. Which is harmful to the men out our school but also the women. Because in valid cases they may be shamed for coming forward. With the current situation we need a justice system at KP that will be fair and search only for the truth no matter what it is.

    • Mid: U hit the nail on the head. The very reason due process is so important is to overcome and limit the biased effect of whatever the political winds, from the left or the right, may be at any given point in time. Basically, due process is there to protect agains mob rule.

    • So you’re more concerned about ruining the life of the accused? What about the victim’s life? Do you think people come forward and report an abuse or crime like this because they have nothing better to do? Do you think Helis wanted to find anyone guilty? Obviously the evidence was overwhelming. The truth is what’s important and in the case that’s the topic of this article, Helis found the truth and the verdict was just. I only take issue with the punishment as the mid should have been expelled. Maybe you should read Judge Bianco’s 32 page Decision so you can understand and maybe you as a current student you can speak up against sexual assault.

      • First of all, I think most allegations made by SASH victims are, if not always completely true, are at the very least mostly true. I also agree with you completely that if the mid in question received a fair hearing and Helis reached a decision that he had “sexually assaulted” someone, suspension/set back is far to lenient and expulsion is warranted.

        I only have 2 issues with the process . First, as a matter of principal, I don’t think these determinations should be left to school administrators and secondly, if we are going to leave these decisions to school administrators, the process has to be beyond reproach. As such, I am beginning to think more and more the UCMJ should be in place at KP for these types of situations.

        I have no idea how old you are, but my concerns are based upon professional experience and history. Do you remember the Tawana Brawley case in New York in the 1980s? Do you remember the Duke Lacrosse team? Do you know that in a great number college disciplinary cases similar to what we are seeing now at the Academy, colleges have been sued and have had to pay settlements because their procedures were inadequate? An accusation is not a conviction and should not be treated as such. I urge you strongly to read the book referred to by Mr. Simpson previously regarding these matters.

        • Parent wrote: [snip] ” if we are going to leave these decisions to school administrators, the process has to be beyond reproach.”

          That is, IMHO, a critical point. We want midshipmen to report SASH. We want victims to feel comfortable reporting SASH. When you don’t have an objectively fair system [and not withstanding the court’s conclusions on due process, I don’t think it meets the requirements of due process and it definitely is not objectively fair], then people will be reluctant to participate/report. Why report a date rape and go through the emotional trauma of reliving the incident if the punishment after a finding of guilt is a slap on the wrist? Why come forward as a witness if the Academy is going to retaliate against you? Why support the result, or report something that you think is a close case of SASH if you believe that the system is rigged against the alleged perpetrator? The system KP has — the system Helis established — satisfies no one because it is not seen, from any vantage point, as objectively fair.

        • I am plenty old enough to remember Twana Brawley case, but don’t forget she was fueled by a big racist – Al Sharpton. Of course there will be cases were the victims are lying but that number is miniscule when compared to the number of actual sexual assaults; the vast majority of which are NOT reported. Why? Maybe you should read the books I’ve suggested or work with victims or actually even know a victim. I guessing you don’t – fortunate for you. With regards to this case, Helis did not want to find the accused guilty. Why taint the academy? The evidence was overwhelming; statements from the accused, the victim and the witnesses revealed the truth. The odds were stacked against the victim. And keep in mind the burden of proof for a college is preponderance of evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt as in a criminal proceeding. Helis was able to sit with everyone, judge their character and look at all the facts, Helis came to the right conclusion. And why would any parent blame him for that? Again, the only issue is the accused, which I feel better calling him a criminal, should’ve been expelled immediately. The disgrace is allowing him to return to prey on other girls next year.

          • With all due respect for both you and Helis in this situation, I would argue that administrators in the current political atmosphere face greater criticism if they find someone “not guilty” of SASH. It’s simply easier for them to make a determination of guilt initially and to let the courts, which are more independent and less subject to political winds, sort it out later.

            Obviously nobody on this thread can write with any true knowledge of the facts surrounding the current case with the mid. I am just using it as an example of what I think is a possible scenario in many similar cases across the country. Other than the fact that I have problems with how Helis administrates the school (sea year, delayed hiring, alumni relations etc.), I think he is a decent person who has served his nation honorably. Unfortunately, the political atmosphere is such that the pressure is on him to show that he is serious about SASH. Could it be that, as the decent person I think he is, that he made an almost unconscious decision not to expel the mid because he wasn’t really confident in his decision and did not want to destroy the young man’s career forever? This might be especially true given, as you correctly point out, that the burden of proof at the administrative hearing was guilt by “preponderance of the evidence” and not “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”, the standard in a true criminal proceeding. Maybe Helis was only 51% sure of his decision and not 90% sure.

            Could it be that Helis, given that lower standard of proof, combined with the political pressure, simply found a compromise position that he thought recognized the legitimate complaint of the victim but also recognized the lack of true legal protection granted to the accused, while still protecting the institution? Could it be that he acted in a manner that he felt was proper to protect everyone in the short run, knowing that eventually legal action would probably be taken in front of an independent federal judge a few years later would clarify things after the media was no longer paying attention?

            While I am sympathetic to Helis and other administrators who might be put in that position, the problem is that the end result satisfies nobody. There’s an old saying in politics–if you walk in the middle of the road, you’re going to get run over.

            Again, that’s why charges of such a serious nature should be left up to professional law enforcement and the justice system, which I am more convinced every day should include UCMJ at the USMMA.

          • BTW, I have a ton of experience working with the victims of SASH and much of the earlier part of my career was spent as a crime victim advocate. Beyond that, I prefer to remain anonymous and I only post on this site in my role as the parent of a mid.

  9. Ok. I am not only concerned about the accused. Obviously I care about the victim. But right now at the academy, there is a culture within the administration that if you are accused its not an “innocent until proven guilty” feel. It is the same way as if you failed two classes and might get set back or kicked out. You have to prove your innocence. And to the person who claims to know all the facts, you don’t. With a case like this no one has the complete facts. Also, he has yet to be found guilty in a court of law so please don’t degrade him like you know him or his character. Helis is not a judge. Finally, this was date rape. This was a horrible action. But don’t make it seem like he is an animal trying to find new prey. This was a guy who may or may not have messed up while drunk, which doesn’t excuse it but also doesn’t completely reflect on his character.

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