By Melanie Hicken, Audrey Ash, Curt Devine, Blake Ellis and Pamela Brown
(CNN) — A college president, who wants his campus to become the business school “of choice for women,” once exchanged hundreds of sexually suggestive messages with a student he taught at the prestigious Coast Guard Academy, prompting prosecutors to recommend charges against him in military court, according to confidential records obtained by CNN.
Attorneys at the Coast Guard were so troubled by Capt. Glenn Sulmasy’s actions — and by the fact that he continued to work with students — that they recommended in early 2016 that he be charged with conduct unbecoming an officer even though he had retired from the service the prior year.
“Prosecution appears to be the only proper course of action,” an attorney wrote in a February 2016 memo laying out the prosecution recommendation. Failing to act, the attorney added, could attract “significant negative publicity by the media, Congress and internal staff for the appearance of sweeping the case under the rug.”
Coast Guard leaders, however, quashed the case and never prosecuted Sulmasy, which allowed his career in private academia to flourish. He now heads Nichols College, a small school in Massachusetts that focuses on business and leadership education.
Sulmasy’s attorney, Jeffrey Robbins, defended his client, calling the prosecution memo, provided to him by CNN, “ridiculous on its face.” He noted that “the intimate texts in question” with the student were characterized by prosecutors as “consensual in nature” and said that the proposed prosecution had been “rightfully rejected by the adults within the legal wing of the Coast Guard.”
Following CNN inquiries, the chairman of the board of trustees at Nichols College said the school had launched an “impartial, third-party investigation into this matter” and that they take “these allegations very seriously.” In a note to the campus community last week, he said Sulmasy volunteered to take a leave of absence pending the results of that investigation.
The case from nearly a decade ago is another hidden example of the Coast Guard internally expressing concern about alleged misconduct but ultimately failing to hold its service members accountable.
CNN in June uncovered a secret investigation of rapes and sexual assaults at the agency’s academy, which found that dozens of assaults had been mishandled, allowing some alleged sexual predators to ascend to high-level roles in the US military. The findings of that investigation, dubbed Operation Fouled Anchor, had been withheld from Congress until CNN reporters started making inquiries. And, CNN found that the agency’s top leaders had been behind the cover-up.
In the separate investigation into Sulmasy, Coast Guard investigators uncovered more than 1,600 texts between him and a young female student, the majority of which were of a “sexual or flirtatious nature,” demonstrating that “at best, he offered to give high grades and show favoritism in class in exchange for sexual banter, and at worst, he actually did so,” according to the internal Coast Guard prosecution memo.
The memo said the student told investigators she had earned the grades herself and denied any sexual contact with Sulmasy. It also described the young woman as a “willing participant” in the exchanges with Sulmasy and said she had been designated as a witness to his alleged misconduct and was not being granted the benefits given to victims of a crime.
The messages show Sulmasy, who also served as a department chair at the academy, commenting on how attracted he was to the student more than 20 years his junior, requesting photos of her and expressing his desire to “spoil” her. “I am… a good boy — no final for the goddess,” he wrote one night. “Just know that I will give u a 100,” he said about another assignment. “Do u luv turning me on…U really looked great and the nails were very hott.”
Coast Guard attorneys found that the “strong” evidence against him warranted prosecuting him in a military court-martial for conduct unbecoming an officer and willful dereliction of duty around eight months after he had retired from the academy and taken on an administrator role at a private university, records show.
While Sulmasy’s misconduct case centered on his interactions with one female cadet, attorneys wrote that “there are likely other students whom [Capt.] Sulmasy pursued,” saying that moving the case forward could possibly bring new women out of the shadows.
Attorneys noted in the prosecution memo that a court-martial of a retired officer was rare and said a successful prosecution for someone as well connected as Sulmasy was even more unlikely. But they argued that it was the “Coast Guard’s obligation to protect students and institutions.” If successful, such a prosecution could have stripped Sulmasy of his pension and landed him behind bars, though prosecutors noted securing the maximum punishment for the alleged misconduct was unlikely.
In the end, Coast Guard leaders overruled the prosecutors and decided not to press charges against Sulmasy, keeping the findings of the investigation from being made public. Sulmasy worked as provost at Bryant University for a number of years before leaving to become the president at Nichols College in Massachusetts in 2021. Bryant University did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
An academy graduate himself, Sulmasy worked at the academy for many years as an attorney, professor and eventually the head of the school’s humanities department. During the Fouled Anchor investigation, Sulmasy was mentioned by at least one woman who said he discouraged her from pursuing a rape complaint against another cadet while he was working at the school in the late 1990s, court records show. Fouled Anchor investigators found a statement she had made about her alleged attack years later in a box labeled with Sulmasy’s name.
A previous attorney for Sulmasy told CNN his client “has no recollection of any such conversation from a quarter of a century ago, much less of having said anything that would discourage any cadet from putting another cadet on report for a serious criminal offense.” His current attorney disputed that Sulmasy had ever been in a meeting with the woman, noting she told investigators she initially met with Sulmasy at a time before he had begun working at the academy. The attorney for Sulmasy pointed CNN to a 2016 ruling by a military judge who stated that the cadet reported her rape allegation to four Coast Guard Academy authorities, none of whom were Sulmasy. That ruling described Sulmasy’s boss as a “primary” individual with whom the woman spoke about her allegation in the 1990s.
In a 2017 court filing, however, military attorneys described Sulmasy as a “main witness” with whom the cadet talked about her rape allegation. In an interview with CNN, the woman said she specifically remembered meeting with Sulmasy about her allegation.
In the wake of CNN’s reporting on Fouled Anchor, the Coast Guard launched a review of its policies on assault and harassment and announced changes in how allegations are handled by the agency. And former vice commandant Charles Ray, who declined comment, resigned from his position at a Coast Guard Academy leadership institute after CNN reported he helped keep Fouled Anchor secret. Both House and Senate lawmakers have slammed the agency for keeping the investigation secret and called for independent investigations, with a Senate inquiry announced just last week. And House lawmakers have introduced legislation that would increase protections for academy cadets reporting sexual assault allegations.
CNN started asking questions and filed a public records request about the Coast Guard’s investigation into Sulmasy more than three months ago, but the agency has yet to provide any details of the investigation or explain why charges were not filed as recommended, saying last week that “legal constraints prevent the Coast Guard from commenting on personnel matters related to Mr. Sulmasy.”
Melissa McCafferty, a 2011 academy graduate, says it wasn’t long after arriving on campus that she began hearing a whisper network of warnings from upperclassmen about Sulmasy.
According to McCafferty, Sulmasy verbally harassed her, telling her she looked good in her pencil skirt and making sexual comments. As the harassment continued, she says she told a female professor at the academy, who was herself a Coast Guard sexual assault survivor, what had happened, but the woman warned that she should stay silent, saying Sulmasy was “untouchable” and that saying something could “jeopardize (her) career.”
After she graduated from the academy, McCafferty said she reached out to Sulmasy to see if he would write her a letter of recommendation for law school based on her academic performance at the academy. But in response, she remembers him texting back that he would only write her a letter if she sent him pictures of herself, telling her he had always loved her foot tattoo. “I stopped the conversation and found a letter elsewhere… It made me feel very dirty and disrespected and very dehumanized,” she said.
She said she saved the messages for years but was never asked about them so discarded the phone when she retired in 2019. She did, however, connect CNN to a former colleague who confirmed having viewed the text messages and that they came from a captain in the Coast Guard. The colleague, however, didn’t remember the captain’s name.
Sulmasy’s attorney told CNN that McCafferty’s allegations were “categorically false.”
The Coast Guard told CNN that it had referred allegations from McCafferty to Coast Guard criminal investigators after being contacted by CNN and urged “anyone who has experienced or observed assault or harassment within the Coast Guard to make reports to their command or to the Coast Guard Investigative Service.” McCafferty confirmed to CNN that she had been contacted by Coast Guard investigators about her allegations.
Today, McCafferty, a recent Georgetown Law graduate, says she is still angry about the way she and other female students were treated and says it is unacceptable that the Coast Guard had an opportunity to hold Sulmasy accountable for his actions but didn’t.
“A lot of these people were his friends. They went to school with him,” she said. “They just wanted it to go away.”
Do you have information or an experience to share related to the Coast Guard Academy or the Coast Guard at large? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.