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Congress revisits cruise crimes

Times Staff Writer

The cruise industry -- facing rough seas amid heightened public scrutiny of shipboard safety -- is being called in front of Congress again to answer whether cruise operators downplayed crimes.

In addition, some lawmakers are looking to crack down on the $32-billion cruise business because of increasing reports of crime, illness and shipboard disappearances.

“I am hearing more and more stories about victims where crimes have been either unreported or not prosecuted,” said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), who requested the March 27 hearing before a House transportation subcommittee. “We really do need to shine a light on this industry. We trust these cruise companies and I don’t know whether we should.”

Among Matsui’s concerns are whether the industry accurately depicted the number of sex crimes on ships and how it chose to define the crimes. Industry executives testified last year that 178 passengers on North American cruises reported being sexually assaulted from 2003 to 2005. More than 12 million people worldwide took cruises last year.

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The hearing -- the third on cruise crimes but the first in the transportation subcommittee -- follows a January report in the Los Angeles Times that said companies might have downplayed the numbers.

The article cited internal Royal Caribbean records that were turned over as part of a civil lawsuit. The company’s spreadsheets revealed that at least 273 people had reported being the victims of sexual assault, battery, harassment or inappropriate touching during a nearly three-year period. The cruise line reported 66 cases to Congress.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. executives maintain that they provided accurate statistics based on legal definitions of sexual assault. Spokesman Michael Sheehan said Monday that the company was happy to continue discussions with lawmakers “regarding the exemplary safety and security record of the cruise industry.”

Gary Bald, Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president of global security and a former top FBI official, has been asked to appear before the subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Representatives from the FBI, the Coast Guard and International Cruise Victims, a support and advocacy group, are likely to testify. The witness list hasn’t been finalized.

“Cruising is one of the most popular vacation options in large part because of its excellent safety record,” said Christine Fischer, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Assn., the industry’s primary lobbying and marketing organization.

Lawmakers, though, have expressed concern about regulatory loopholes that allow ships to operate under “flags of convenience” issued by countries such as Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas. The foreign registries allow the operators to pay little in U.S. corporate income taxes and to avoid U.S. labor laws. In addition, jurisdiction for investigating crimes is muddied by international waters.

Lawmakers are working on redrafting and reintroducing legislation proposed last year by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) that would require cruise operators to report crimes involving U.S. citizens to the Department of Homeland Security within four hours. The crime reports would then be posted on the Internet for public review.

Ken Carver, co-founder of International Cruise Victims, said he would like to see independent security forces on the ships. “You’ve got a cruise ship out there, people are drinking while stuff’s going on and nobody is responsible,” Carver said. “It’s like a town of 3,000 people with no independent police force.”

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Matsui became aware of the issues facing the cruise industry after she was contacted by a constituent, Laurie Dishman, who alleged that she was raped while on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Mexico.

The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office decided not to arrest the suspect -- a member of the crew acting as a security guard -- citing a lack of evidence.

“I want to see the criminals prosecuted,” said Dishman, who will testify at the hearing. “I want justice to be served.”

kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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