On Whistleblowing (Part II)

Written by Captain Jeffrey B. Hagopian

This article is a follow-up to the original blog post titled “On Whistleblowing.” In this first article I outlined and detailed the events that led to my whistleblower/retaliatory termination. 

My termination occurred eleven days after I reported two illegal and felonious safety violations that took place on my former vessel, the “Noble Danny Adkins.” Specifically, “red” entries in the logbook falsely stating that on January 29, 2015 all four lifeboats were “launched and maneuvered” (this event never happened) and the collective directive and agreement between Noble Drilling shore based management and the vessel management i.e. the vessel Captain, Daniel Askins, to lie and not be forthright with U.S. Coast Guard Inspectors during the February 10, 2015 U.S. Coast Guard Inspection as it pertained to the faulty and defective condition of the vessels fast rescue craft (FRC) gravity davit.

I made my safety report both orally and in writing (via email) to Noble Drilling’s “Alternate Designated Person Ashore” (ADPA) Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka. Unbeknownst to me at the time I filed my safety report was that ADPA Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka himself, among several others in shore based management, was a knowing, willing participant in this illegal and felonious conduct. Hence, eleven days later I was terminated. 

The members of shore-based management included ADPA Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka, Drilling Superintendent John Hawkins and VP/Chief Compliance Officer James Sanislow. In addition, former Operations Manager Greg Broussard and the Human Resources Manager at the time, Ms. Priscilla Heistad, also were aware of this. For the record, Ms. Heistad is also a licensed attorney in the State of Texas. 

This next article will focus the conflicts of interest that exist between the Marine Inspections division of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Flag State(s) and the corporate management of companies such as Noble Drilling. This is nothing new and has been going on for years. The result has created a culture of enablement as the U.S. Coast Guard refuses to hold dysfunctional, irresponsible and outright dangerous corporate management cultures, such as Noble Drilling, accountable and responsible for their behavior that endangers their vessel personnel.

As mariners, we are supposed to be able to rely on the U.S. Coast Guard to support the mariner when it comes to enforcement of regulations for safety at sea. The U.S. Coast Guard is supposed to hold corporate management accountable when they operate illegally and endanger the safety of their vessel personnel. In addition, they are also supposed to hold licensed officers accountable should they conduct themselves in an illegal or disingenuous manner that threatens the safety of their crews. 

The “prevention” page on the USCG’s website lists one of its missions as to “Honor The Mariner.” In my opinion, this is a complete farce as the U.S. Coast Guard has done the opposite and actually made our industry more dangerous. When there are no consequences for ones actions there is no incentive to change. In my opinion, the U.S. Coast Guard has hung the mariner out to dry. I realize that this is a very strong statement; however, I base this on my own personal experiences related to my termination. This is outlined in the following paragraphs:

In March 2016, I contacted a member of the “prevention” department of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 8th District in New Orleans, LA. I had a previous rapport with this individual so I sought him out and we spoke. The Spring 2016 edition of the U.S. Coast Guard’s “PROCEEDINGS” Magazine was just published. This magazine is the the U.S. Coast Guards “Journal of Safety & Security at Sea.” This edition of “PROCEEDINGS” was dedicated to “Safety Management Systems.” Given the fact that my termination resulted eleven days after making a report to Noble Drilling’s “Alternate Designated Person Ashore” (the Designated Person/Alternate Designated Person are a critical component and requirement of safety management systems) contacting the U.S. Coast Guard and reporting what had happened seemed appropriate; especially, where the U.S. Coast Guard had used “PROCEEDINGS” to emphasize the importance of safety management systems.

I explained how Noble Drilling retaliated and terminated me and the details of what had happened. They did nothing. They came up with excuses as to why they could not and would not investigate it and would not get involved. They also said that since the vessel had been “stacked” i.e. “laid up” and was no longer in service that they could not do an investigation into this matter. The fact that the vessel was “stacked” or “laid up” is completely irrelevant; however, this was the excuse the U.S. Coast Guard used.

I had all of the evidence to validate what had happened but they were not interested and were not going to get involved. Again, in October 2016, I followed up again with the U.S. Coast Guard’s 8th District. This time I was put in contact with the Officer in Charge of Marine Inspection (OCMI) who was Captain Joshua Reynolds. Captain Reynolds had just given a presentation to the “Center for Offshore Safety” at their annual forum which took place in late September 2016.

Ironically, the topic of Mr. Reynolds presentation was the “changing of safety culture” in the offshore industry. In his opening remarks, Captain Reynolds states the following: “I am all in; the Coast Guard is all in. We have to get beyond compliance to a Safety Culture. The Coast Guard will do its part.” In attendance was U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul F. Thomas – at the time he was the U.S. Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy. Admiral Thomas is quoted in the Spring 2016 “PROCEEDINGS” as stating the following: “There is nothing more dangerous than the false sense of security that comes with a safety management system that exists on paper only.” However, when I spoke directly with Mr. Reynolds approximately two weeks after he gave his presentation he couldn’t backtrack and make excuses fast enough as to why the U.S. Coast Guard could not and would not get involved.

This incident with Noble Drilling was a textbook example of the “culture” that Mr. Reynolds was addressing. When a five-year Captain is terminated/retaliated upon eleven days after making a safety report to a DPA/ADPA that is clear evidence of a non-existent and completely dysfunctional safety culture or as Admiral Thomas is quoted, “……a safety management system that exists on paper only.” Noble Drillings ISM/DPA reporting procedures clearly state that all safety violations must be reported and these procedures are also very specific about non-retaliation for the reporting of safety issues. What the U.S. Coast Guard fails to comprehend is the trickle down effect this has on other crew members. When other crew members see a five-year Captain of one of the best vessels in the company fleet terminated within days of making a safety report what type of message does that send? It sends the message that if you speak up about safety you will be fired. This is a very elementary concept that the U.S. Coast Guard cannot seem to grasp. The dysfunctional and warped culture of Noble Drilling is precisely the culture that Mr. Reynolds and, allegedly, the U.S. Coast Guard is “all in” about trying to change. This was an ideal opportunity for Mr. Reynolds and the U.S. Coast Guard to actually take action and do something to promote a safety culture rather than just talk about it. Unfortunately, they chose the latter.

At the time of my termination, Noble Drilling was already a convicted felon on probation for safety and oil pollution violations as well as having “major non-conformities with its safety management system.” On December 8, 2014, Noble Drilling pled guilty to eight felony counts related to safety and oil pollution violations which occurred on the vessel “Noble Discoverer.”The events surrounding the illegal safety violations I reported occurred merely two months after the signing of the plea agreement and the commencement of probation. I will elaborate on Noble’s felony convictions and my communications/interactions with the Department of Justice in the next post.

Clearly, this demonstrates a pattern of illegal, disingenuous and unethical conduct on the part of Noble Drilling management. However, that didn’t matter to Mr. Reynolds and the U.S. Coast Guard. They just kept looking the other way and did nothing. I followed up with Mr. Reynolds, again, in mid-February 2017. In an email, I asked him point blank if he and the U.S. Coast Guard were going to do something regarding Noble Drilling or keep looking the other way and doing nothing. Mr. Reyolds and the U.S. Coast Guard, again, chose the latter. 

The epitome of the hypocrisy of Mr. Reynolds and the U.S. Coast Guard was at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, TX on June 28, 2017. Mr. Reynolds is quoted as saying the following: “I’m a believer in safety management systems……The challenge is to get buy-in at all levels; they should be part of a safety culture. If there’s no safety culture, a safety management system becomes shelf ware generated by a corporate to satisfy a regulation….There are three steps to a good safety management system: 1. Say what you do; 2. Do what you say and; 3 Prove it”  Mr. Reynolds is absolutely correct and I would suggest that Mr. Reynolds and the U.S. Coast Guard should heed those words themselves……..Mr. Reynolds and the U.S. Coast Guard have the words down but their words aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

They know how to say the right things and they can deliver a presentation but it is all smoke and mirrors and nothing but a “dog and pony show.” When it comes to actually taking action and following through with their words they do nothing. What I, personally, find repugnant is that Mr. Reynolds had the audacity to “double down” and make these statements four months after I called him and the U.S. Coast Guard out for looking the other way and doing nothing (see attached email). The U.S. Coast Guard has the power and authority to enforce ISM/safety management system compliance……..but they refuse to do it. Unfortunately, this is the consistent hypocrisy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In an effort to appease me, Mr. Reynolds put me in contact with U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Todd Michael who was based out of U.S. Coast Guard sector Corpus Christi, TX. One would think that given the egregious nature of Noble Drillings conduct and how allegedly “passionate” Mr. Reynold is about safety management systems that he would want to speak and meet with me directly. This would not be the case.

This further demonstrates the hypocrisy of Mr. Reynolds and that of the U.S. Coast Guard. For the record, I met with U.S. Coast Guard CWO Todd Michael on March 30, 2017, in Houston, TX. I provided him hard copies and electronic copies of all of the evidence I had. In my last communication with CWO Michael he told me had forwarded the evidence up his chain of command. Unfortunately, from there it evaporated and I have heard nothing ever since from the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2017, in a phone conversation with a member of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 8th District, I was told that my situation with Noble Drilling was too “politically sensitive” and that they were given an order to “stand down” from getting involved. Since when does “political sensitivity” have anything to do with the safety of mariners? I could not believe what I was hearing.

If there are any members of the senior leadership of the U.S. Coast Guard who are reading this article perhaps they can provide some insight into how “political sensitivity” relates to the safety of mariners. To be clear, as mariners, our world is not about politics or cronyism or political sensitivity. At sea or offshore, our world is very black and white and the one thing we all want to do is to come home safely to our families and loved ones. 

My personal opinion and interpretation of “political sensitivity” is that the U.S. Coast Guard does not want to “upset” the management of companies such as Noble Drilling. After all, these companies employ many former members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Noble Drilling is no exception to this. This is articulated further in this article. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard know that if they are lenient and/or “cooperative” with these companies then there will be a lucrative position for them upon leaving the U.S. Coast Guard. This quid pro quo and “revolving door” is not a coincidence and it has been going on for years. This is a direct conflict of interest and the result is sub-standard inspections being conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard with the end result having a direct effect on the safety of the mariner.

A textbook example of this is former U.S. Coast Guard sector Jacksonville Commander, “Captain” Jeff Dixon. Upon leaving the U.S. Coast Guard in April 2017 he went to work for TOTE in May 2017 and in January 2019 he was promoted to President of TOTE.

Coincidentally, the U.S. Coast Guard has, to the best of my knowledge, not levied the civil fines on TOTE as a result of the tragic loss of the “Ef Faro.” It appears that things have worked out quite well for TOTE and Mr. Dixon. 

At the time of my termination, Noble Drillings “compliance” group was headed by VP/Chief Compliance Officer James Sanislow. Mr. Sanislow is a 1989 graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy and at one time held a U.S. Coast Guard Unlimited Tonnage Deck License. Mr. Sanislow is also an attorney for Noble Drilling. The Director of Compliance was Mr. Jim Gormanson who was a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. In addition, ADPA Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka, Mr. Odell Reid and Mr. Alan Grodecki are all former members of the U.S. Coast Guard and were all members of the “compliance” and/or “health, safety & environmental” (HSE) group at Noble Drilling at the time of my termination. ADPA Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka, whom I made my safety report to, is a twenty-seven year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard who spent the last seven years of his Coast Guard career in marine inspections. One would think that a regulatory “compliance” group led by a maritime academy graduate, a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and several other members who were all former members of the U.S. Coast Guard would be well versed in compliance with applicable maritime laws and regulations.

Specifically, it is not unreasonable to expect that all of them would be well versed and knowledgable in safety regulations contained in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations as well as those required by SOLAS. SOLAS is an abbreviation for the “International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.”

One would also think that while the ink was still drying on a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and Noble Drilling had just commenced four years probation that ADPA Vaclav “Jed” Jedlicka would not be recommending to Drilling Superintendent John Hawkins and Captain Daniel Askins that they should let the U.S. Coast Guard “broach the subject first” regarding the condition of a faulty and defective fast rescue craft (FRC) gravity davit.

This directive was contained in an email (which is attached) the night before and the morning of the U.S. Coast Guard Inspection of February 10, 2015. This is in direct violation of the law and it is also extremely unethical. Considering ADPA Jedlicka’s background with the U.S. Coast Guard this directive is unconscionable. Perhaps, the U.S. Coast Guard viewed Noble’s  behavior as an embarrassment and a “black eye” for the U.S. Coast Guard. After all, it does speak volumes that the compliance group of an eight time convicted felon that is reoffending within two months of commencing probation is comprised, primarily, of former members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Perhaps, that is what they meant by “political sensitivity?” From strictly a personal point of view, any individual with an unlimited tonnage license (especially an Unlimited Masters License) who would knowingly, willingly sign off on false logbook entries for something as critical as lifesaving equipment is not worthy of possessing any type of Merchant Mariner Credential.

The conduct of the U.S. Coast Guard and their former members reached a new low when my attorney informed me that the “expert” witness that Noble Drilling was going to use against me in my litigation with Noble Drilling was U.S. Coast Guard Captain David L. Nichols. Mr. Nichols was the U.S. Coast Guards 8th District former Chief of the Outer Continental Shelf Division which was responsible for the safety and security of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Nichols retired from the Coast Guard in 2015. Given the truth, the facts and the evidence I don’t know how this individual, in good conscience, could actually testify and/or provide expert counsel and defend Noble Drilling in their actions; especially, where they were already an eight-time convicted felon on probation.

According to his Linkedin profile he is presently employed by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). Perhaps, the potential involvement of Mr. Nichols providing “expert” testimony for Noble Drilling contributed to the “political sensitivity” that was previously referred to. 

In addition, in May 2017, I notified the Liberian Registry of Noble Drillings conduct. As the Flag State they have a responsibility to ensure their vessels comply with the law and applicable rules and regulations as well as complying with the ISM Code and safety management systems. Considering Noble was a convicted felon on probation notifying them seemed appropriate. As with the U.S. Coast Guard they came up with excuses and took no action. Coincidentally, there are many former members of the U.S. Coast Guard employed at the Liberian Registry. I have copies of all of the email correspondence with them. As with the U.S. Coast Guard, they made excuses, looked the other way and did nothing. 

This was an opportunity for the U.S. Coast Guard and the Flag State to send a message to corporations such as Noble Drilling and set a precedent that this type of conduct would not be tolerated. Instead, they did just the opposite and set the horrible precedent that this type of conduct was acceptable. The action of doing nothing is tantamount to consent and approval. As I previously stated, when there are no consequences for illegal, irresponsible and dangerous corporate behavior there is no incentive for them to change. 
A real Captain puts his crew and vessel first above all else including themselves. The U.S. Coast Guard is supposed to have “the back” of the mariner. However, corporations know they can fire their Captains for raising safety concerns and that they can get away with it because they know the U.S. Coast Guard will look the other way and do nothing. This is very, very dangerous. The U.S. Coast Guard has put politics, cronyism and corporate pandering ahead of the safety of the mariner. Who is looking out for the safety and well being of the mariner?  “Honor The Mariner” it says on the “prevention” page of the U.S. Coast Guard’s website. If only that were actually true.

The U.S. Coast Guard must change their culture of enablement. If they don’t, it is only inevitable that there will be more tragedies such as “El Faro”and “Deepwater Horizon.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If any of you have any questions or comments please feel to comment on the blog or to contact me directly. Until the next post……

Captain Jeffrey B. HagopianMassachusetts Maritime Academy – Class of 1988Cell: 978-764-3908Email: 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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