Assail on the Fun Ship

Carnival doesn't just neglect passengers who claim to be victims of sexual assault. It attempts to shut them up.

Carnival's behavior has recently caught the attention of law-enforcement agents and legislators from Washington, D.C., to South Florida. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami convened a grand jury in October 1999 to study whether the company obstructed justice in the nurse's 1998 rape case, court documents show. One chief area of inquiry: Did Carnival executives purposely usher the suspect out of the country before FBI agents could interview him? (The executives contend the episode was the result of miscommunication.) The grand jury subpoenaed the nurse, several Carnival employees, and at least two former employees, among others. If the grand jury finds sufficient cause, the company could be criminally indicted.

Also this past October, Congress' Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee held hearings on passenger safety aboard cruise ships. That gathering was prompted by news accounts of fires, mechanical breakdowns, and sexual assaults. (The rape claims were first detailed in The New York Times and the Miami Daily Business Review.)

Charles Harris
Charles Harris
Charles Harris
Attorney Michael Eriksen
Steve Satterwhite
Attorney Michael Eriksen

Wayne Gilchrest, the Republican representative from Maryland who chairs the subcommittee, argues the industry needs more supervision. "We should have annual oversight hearings," he says, to ensure the safety of U.S. passengers. Before a Senate subcommittee the same month, Republican presidential candidate John McCain warned a cruise line trade organization: "You've got a credibility problem right now."

Resentment against the cruise industry has been simmering for years. Carnival, like the other major lines, doesn't answer to American authorities. Its ships are registered in countries other than the United States, primarily Liberia and Panama. Such a strategy has benefits besides avoiding law-enforcement oversight. Carnival pays no tax. Foreign registry also allows the company to dodge U.S. labor laws.

When a crime occurs onboard, it's often unclear who should investigate. A U.S. citizen who is victimized in international waters can contact the FBI. If the ship is in port or just off the coast at the time, the local police force has jurisdiction. Indeed, according to lawyers who have sued the cruise giant and according to ex-employees contacted by New Times, the company routinely tries to dissuade victims from reporting such unpleasant incidents.

In five lawsuits against Carnival reviewed by New Times, reporters turned up behavior that cruise patrons might find alarming. The company helped at least five employees accused of rape to leave the country, fought to keep a waiter accused of attacking a Minnesota woman from being sued, fired nurse Cathy Wieland after she cooperated with the FBI, and so bungled the gathering of evidence in Mary's case that lawmen had no choice but to cut short their investigation.

Authorities should have stepped in long ago, cruise line critics argue. "The U.S. government has the power to reform things," attorney Michael Eriksen says. "U.S. passengers are the lifeblood of the cruise lines. [Congress] can simply pass a law that if a crew member commits a crime against a passenger on a ship, they automatically accede to U.S. law as a condition of employment." Whether Congress will act "depends whether the will and conscience of our elected representatives can withstand the lobbying efforts of the cruise industry," notes Miami attorney Gary Fox, who represented the nurse who claims she was attacked.

If Carnival has become a leviathan, Charles Harris is its Captain Ahab. Unlike Melville's hero, though, Harris has found that throwing barbs at the massive white ships and their owners requires little sacrifice. In fact it pays quite well. Since leaving his job as security chief on the Jubilee in 1993, Harris has worked as an expert witness at a rate of $95 per hour in 38 cases filed against not only Carnival but also Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.; Norwegian Cruise Line; Princess Cruises; and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Ltd.

Harris is an imposing, six-foot-three-inch, 47-year-old Texan, who is one-eighth Native American. The son of a horse trainer and the grandson of ranchers, he grew up in the rural western part of the Lone Star State. Early on, he recalls, a local sheriff's influence helped steer his interests from horses to police work. While studying law enforcement at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, during the late '70s, Harris moonlighted as a state corrections officer. Then he spent nine years as a sheriff's deputy in two Texas counties, while doing postgraduate work in criminal justice. (In 1997 he finished correspondence courses at LaSalle University, in Lafayette, Louisiana, and earned a Ph.D.)

In the late '80s Harris segued from police to private security work, taking a job with a company that provided protection for executives. While in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm, he met Carnival's then-director of security Joe Fields, who offered a tantalizing description of life at sea. Although the $24,000 per year pay was low, the job would offer travel to tropical islands and more. And there would be opportunity for advancement, Fields said. He planned a reorganization that would add a chief of security on each ship. Harris was hooked.

Fields hired Harris in 1991. Soon after the Texan signed on with Carnival, he recalls meeting other new hires with law-enforcement backgrounds. Before sending them to their ships, the security director provided his new staff with training in investigating crimes, antiterrorism tactics, and accident inquiry. Then Harris was assigned as chief of security aboard the Jubilee, which docked in Los Angeles. The glamour of the new job soon dulled, he says, when he realized his force was understaffed and underpaid. He would supervise five or six security guards, who were mostly from South and Central America and spoke little English. Their training consisted of a 40-hour course, and they earned about $400 per month, he says.

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