On Whistleblowing

By Jeff Hagopian

(Sent to the parent of a lost mariner aboard the SS El Faro)

Mr. Pusatere,

I am very sorry for the loss of your son as well as for the loss of all of the crew members of the “El Faro.” For quite some time I have debated whether or not to put my story on gcaptain forum. Reading your posts prompted me to do so.
You are correct in that ALL mariners should do the right thing. I did the right thing and was retaliated for doing so. Below is my story. It is disturbing and illustrates just how politically motivated the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Justice is to pander to these corporate entities and that the safety of the mariner is a mere afterthought. This should be very troubling and alarming to ALL MARINERS no matter what area of our industry they work in; however, I will leave that to you and other readers to form your own conclusions. Thank you for taking the time to read this story.
Again, I am very sorry for the loss of your son.

“The Whistleblower Retaliatory Termination of Captain Jeffrey B. Hagopian, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of Alaska”

On March 16, 2015, I was made aware of safety violations that took place on my vessel, the “Noble Danny Adkins.” The vessel was a Liberian-flagged, self-propelled, dynamically positioned, mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) operated by Noble Drilling. Chief Mate Michael Gavis was aboard when the violations took place and it was he who made me aware of these safety violations. In compliance with Noble company policy, on March 18, 2015, and again on March 20, 2015, I reported these safety violations to Noble Drilling’s “Alternate Designated Person Ashore” (ADPA) Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka. ADPA Jedlicka was a member of Noble’s “Health, Safety & Environmental” (HSE) team.

I had been Captain of the “Noble Danny Adkins” for five years from March 2010 until March 31, 2015. On March 31, 2015, eleven days after I filed my report with ADPA Jedlicka, I was abruptly terminated from my Captain’s position at Noble Drilling. I received a phone call from Human Resource Manager, Priscilla Heistad, and my supervisor, Drilling Superintendent John Hawkins, who was the shore-based manager for my vessel. I was told “we have lost confidence in your ability to manage the vessel.” In my five year tenure as Captain I had five performance evaluations that were all very positive and complimentary. Drilling Superintendent John Hawkins stated that I was “an asset to Noble.” I had never been written-up, warned or had any sort of disciplinary action taken against me during my tenure of employment at Noble Drilling. The “Noble Danny Adkins” was considered one of the best vessels in Noble’s fleet and had an outstanding reputation for safety, efficiency, regulatory compliance and crew morale.

The safety violations I reported to ADPA Jedlicka were as follows:

  1. A false “red entry” in the logbook that was made regarding the S.O.L.A.S. requirement for the quarterly “launching and maneuvering” of the vessels four lifeboats. A logbook entry made on January 29, 2015, stated that all four lifeboats were “launched and maneuvered.” This event never happened. 3rd Mate Steven Haugland made the false entry and Captain Daniel Askins signed off on it both knowing the entry was false.
  2. Attempting to lie and not be forthright with U.S. Coast Guard Inspectors regarding the faulty and defective condition of the vessels fast rescue craft gravity davit during the annual U.S. Coast Guard “Certificate of Compliance” Inspection of Tuesday, February 10, 2015. Rather than disclose this faulty condition with the U.S. Coast Guard Inspectors, as is required by law, a decision was made between shore-based and vessel management to “let them broach the subject first.” This directive was contained in email correspondence between Drilling Superintendent John Hawkins and Captain Daniel Askins the night before and the morning of the February 10, 2015, U.S. Coast Guard Inspection.

Unbeknownst to me was that my report of safety violations to ADPA Jedlicka exposed a corporate cover-up that involved ADPA Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka himself, Noble Drilling’s VP of Compliance/Chief Compliance Officer James Sanislow, Captain Daniel Askins and, lastly, the person who terminated my employment – Drilling Superintendent John Hawkins. Particularly troubling is the maritime background and education of these individuals: James Sanislow is an attorney for Noble and he is also a 1989 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and John Hawkins is a 1997 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. At one time they each held a U.S. Coast Guard Unlimited Tonnage Deck and Engineering License, respectively; Daniel Askins is a graduate of the Texas A&M Maritime Academy and holds an Unlimited Tonnage Master’s License and Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka is a twenty-seven year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard.

My termination was retaliatory for “blowing the whistle” on these safety violations. Drilling Superintendent John Hawkins was previously the shore-based manager of the vessel “Noble Discoverer” in Alaska. On December 8, 2014, Noble Drilling pled guilty to eight felony counts related to safety and oil pollution violations that took place on the “Noble Discoverer” from 2010 to 2012 when John Hawkins was Drilling Superintendent. Noble paid $12.2 million in fines and was put on four years criminal probation. Regarding Noble Drilling’s illegal conduct, they engaged in the following: “knowingly presented false and fictitious records to the USCG”; “knowingly and willfully failed to notify the USCG of hazardous conditions aboard the Noble Discoverer”; “knowingly made false entries in its oil record book”; “Noble knowingly engaged in the below conduct with the intent to avoid compliance with the law and avoid detection by the U.S. Coast Guard.” Additionally, “The Coast Guard discovered numerous violations, including but not limited to, major non-conformities with the safety management system….” The plea agreement can be viewed at www.whistleblowers.org 1; case# 3:2014-cr-00114-RRB, United States of America vs. Noble Drilling. Obviously, it would not look favorable on Noble Drilling that within two months of signing their plea agreement and commencing four years probation that their Chief Compliance Officer, DPA/ADPA, Drilling Superintendent and one of their Captains were all conspiring to lie and not be forthright with U.S. Coast Guard Inspectors regarding safety/lifesaving equipment as well as the falsification of logbook entries.

I filed a lawsuit against Noble Drilling under the “Seaman’s Protection Act” in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas – Galveston Division: case # 3:2016-cv-00099. The case settled out of Court in the February/March 2017.

In March 2016 I contacted the U.S. Coast Guard’s 8th District in New Orleans, LA and informed them of my whistleblower retaliation/termination. USCG “Proceedings” was just published and it was dedicated to “safety management systems.” When a five-year Captain is fired within days of making a safety report to their DPA/ADPA it is indicative of a dysfunctional “safety management system” and a non-existent safety “culture.” Considering Noble was already a convicted felon on probation, informing the Coast Guard seemed appropriate. The Coast Guard came up with excuses as to why they could not and would not get involved and they did nothing. It was later told to me from a member of the Coast Guard’s 8th District that this situation with Noble Drilling was too “politically sensitive” and that they were given an order to “stand down.” Politics, cronyism and pandering to corporations such as Noble Drilling has no place when it comes to the safety of vessel personnel. Since when is the safety of vessel personnel “politically sensitive?” If any members of the Senior Leadership of U.S. Coast Guard are reading this perhaps they can provide an answer to this question.

On May 1, 2017, I contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska where Noble was on probation. My termination resulted from reporting illegal and felonious safety violations that were almost identical to that of the “Noble Discoverer” so I felt it appropriate to contact U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder and his Office. Especially, given the fact that U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder is a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and served twenty-four years in the U.S. Coast Guard. The Noble case was also handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea T. Steward and Deputy Criminal Chief Steven M. Skrocki. Given U.S. Attorney Schroder’s background with the Coast Guard and Noble’s recent criminal history one would think he and his Office would have looked at this situation from a very critical perspective. The U.S. Attorney’s Office looked the other way and did nothing. They gave Noble a “free pass.” Regarding the safety violations I reported, Noble falsely stated to the Court that the crew “cut corners” on a lifeboat drill. They did not “cut corners.” They made a false entry of an event that never happened. Regarding lying and not being forthright with the Coast Guard inspectors, Noble falsely stated to the Court that they “investigated” this but there was “nothing to substantiate” this allegation. ADPA Jedlicka attempted to “investigate” this; however, Chief Mate Michael Gavis refused to cooperate and, as a result, ADPA Jedlicka abruptly ended his “investigation.” This was ADPA Jedlicka’s testimony under oath. He also testified under oath that the logbook entry was false. I provided a plethora of evidence and documentation to substantiate my claims including transcripts of sworn deposition testimony; however, it didn’t matter. Noble was granted early termination of probation and as of March 1, 2018, Noble’s probation ended. “On paper,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office opposed Noble’s request for early termination of probation but all they did was “go through the motions.” They used none of the evidence I provided. Attorney’s James Sanislow, John Cox and Herbert Ray comprised Noble’s defense counsel vs. the United States. Mr. Sanislow was also involved in my litigation. James Sanislow knew the truth yet Noble knowingly, willingly and maliciously lied and committed perjury in numerous documents and declarations submitted to the U.S. District Court in Alaska. In March/April 2018, besides what I had already provided the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I provided additional evidence to U.S. Attorney Schroder’s Office that Noble lied to the Court. It didn’t matter to U.S. Attorney Schroder and his Office. They still looked the other way and did nothing. They even agreed with Noble’s assertion that I was not a whistleblower.

My reason and purpose for telling this story is that I want to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen again to anyone who is trying to keep their crew and vessel safe. Companies such as Noble Drilling that operate in such a disingenuous and unethical are unsafe and dangerous and they will eventually get people seriously injured or killed. As Captains and mariners we, predominantly, rely on the Coast Guard to ensure that these type of companies operate legally and with the mariners safety paramount. As Captains, it is our responsibility to ensure that our crew and vessels are safe. The Coast Guard is supposed to support Captain’s and mariners when it comes to safety. However, in my opinion, when it comes to supporting or “honoring the mariner,” the U.S. Coast Guard has failed the mariner. My retaliatory termination is an example of this. Captains are not supposed to be fired within days after reporting safety violations to a DPA/ADPA. How does the Coast Guard and the U.S. Attorney’s Office look the other way and do nothing? Noble Drilling was a convicted felon on probation and within two months of commencing probation they were, again, involved in illegal and felonious activity almost identical to what landed them on probation in the first place. How does the U.S. Attorney and the U.S. Coast Guard ignore this? A U.S. Attorney, no less, who graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and spent 24 years in the Coast Guard. This inaction by U.S. Attorney Schroder is incomprehensible and, quite frankly, disgraceful as he should know better. U.S. Attorney Schroder had the opportunity to set the precedent that illegal, unsafe and felonious conduct will not be tolerated. Instead, the opposite precedent was set and now, more than ever, these companies will now feel empowered to do whatever they want because they know there will be no accountability, responsibility or consequences for their illegal and unethical conduct. James Sanislow is Chairman of the “Ethics & Compliance” Committee of the Int’l Association of Drilling Contractors, www.iadc.org. This will trickle down. U.S. Attorney Schroder and his Office gave these companies a victory and, for the mariner, they gave a knife to the back. Captain’s and vessel crew will now think twice before they voice safety concerns out of fear of retaliation as they know there is no one to protect them.

This has to stop and it has to stop now. The disingenuous management “culture” of companies such as Noble Drilling contributes greatly to such tragedies as “El Faro” or “Deepwater Horizon” because it creates an environment of dangerous, unsafe and unethical leadership. These companies know the Coast Guard and, now, the U.S. Attorney(s) won’t hold them accountable for their disingenuous and illegal conduct. This creates “Captain’s” who are willing to put their crew and vessels at risk out of fear or to look good in the eyes of the company and management. Case in point: The false logbook entry made by the temporary 3rd Mate and signed off by Captain. They both knew those lifeboats were not “launched and maneuvered” and that the logbook entry was false. However, the 3rd Mate was a temporary employee hoping to get hired on as a full-time Noble employee so he was willing to do whatever it took. It is unconscionable that a “Captain” and another deck officer would knowingly, willingly sign off on a false logbook entry as it pertains to the maintenance of safety and lifesaving equipment, especially, the vessels lifeboats.

In Bresnahan Hall, on the campus of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, there is a plaque which states the following: “You can have a Merchant Marine with first class men even if they sail second-class ships. But second class men can’t be trusted on the finest ships afloat.” These words are as truthful and relevant today as they were over 80 years ago.

If the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Justice and other regulatory and/or law enforcement agencies continue to play politics and pander to corporate entities such as Noble Drilling and not hold them accountable for their conduct then there will continue to be tragic and potentially avoidable, disasters at sea. When there is no accountability, responsibility or consequences for dangerous, unsafe and illegal, unethical behavior history is destined to repeat itself.

On October 4, 2018, I mailed a letter to U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder. I attempted to put a copy of this letter with this post but the file was too large. I copied a number of other individuals including the Commandant and Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. I also mailed a copy of this letter to each Congressional member of the “Subcommittee on Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation.” To date, I have received no response from U.S. Attorney Schroder or anyone else for that matter. I

I stand by everything I have written here as truthful and factual and I have the evidence to support it.

Captain Jeffrey B. Hagopian
Massachusetts Maritime Academy – Class of 1988
Instructor – U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) – Newport, RI
Cell: 978-764-3908
Email: jbhagop@yahoo.com

Published by Robert Frump

Robert Frump is an author, journalist and content strategist living in the New York City area.

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