Cruise Ship Safety Law Questioned

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit discovered that federal agencies are responsible for last minute changes to a bill designed to make crime at sea more transparent.

By By Elyce Kirchner and Liz Wagner
|  Monday, Jun 11, 2012  |  Updated 6:55 PM PDT
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An NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit follow-up to a story regarding cruise ship safety. Reporter Elyce Kirchner reports on how members of Congress are blaming the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard for changing the law making it easier for the cruise industry to under-report crime at sea.

An NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit follow-up to a story regarding cruise ship safety. Reporter Elyce Kirchner reports on how members of Congress are blaming the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard for changing the law making it easier for the cruise industry to under-report crime at sea.

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Members of Congress are blaming the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Coast Guard for changing a law to make it easier for the cruise industry to withhold statistics about crime at sea.

Backers of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 had hoped that the bill would provide greater transparency on how often crime happens on cruise ships. Critics say language added to that bill right before it passed actually made the law less transparent.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) sponsored the bill requiring cruise companies to report all crimes to the FBI. In turn, the agency makes those statistics public on the U.S. Coast Guard website.

Last minute language altered the bill so that only crimes "no longer under investigation” by the FBI would be reported in the public database.

In a memo obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, Kerry's own office acknowledges for the first time publically that the bill was changed at the request of the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The agencies "feared that reporting on pending cases could impact ongoing investigations and endanger lives and efforts to bring criminals to justice," according to the memo.

Ken Carver of the International Cruise Victims Association spent months trying to figure out how the bill was altered.

His daughter disappeared on a cruise ship in 2004.

Carver said he's disappointed that the agencies he’d worked with to make crime statistics more transparent may be to blame for the change to the bill.

"We do feel betrayed there has been a close relationship built up over the years between the Coast Guard, FBI and cruise lines," Carver said. "Why did they want to change it so that instead of working to protect the U.S. citizens it protected the cruise line industry? And I really feel that there has been a close relationship, sorry to say, between these organizations."

Carver believes the cruise industry is using the apparent lack of crime reports to suggest that cruises are safer than ever.

Sen. Kerry’s office says it is now seeking stronger legislation through the Senate Commerce Committee.

It is unclear when Sen. Kerry or Rep. Matsui learned that the agencies may have been responsible for changing language in the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.

The FBI and the Coast Guard have not returned calls for comment.

If you have a story you think the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit should investigative, email theunit@nbcbayarea.com.

“This legislation was a several years in the making, uphill struggle to pass badly needed reforms to end an unacceptable status quo. Crime reporting language was added at the request of the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard, which feared that reporting on pending cases could impact on-going investigations and endanger lives and efforts to bring criminals to justice. Senator Kerry worked side-by-side with consumer protection advocates and Ken Carver, the father of a Massachusetts woman who tragically disappeared on a cruise ship, to achieve major safety and transparency reforms that will help protect the millions of Americans who board cruise ships each year. It's hardly the last word on the subject or the last effort needed to correct the problems Mr. Carver and others identified, and Sen. Kerry will continue to work with his colleagues on the Commerce Committee to push for even stronger transparency and reporting measures.”

–Whitney Smith, Sen. John Kerry’s Press Secretary

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