WASHINGTON — The secretary of the Army said Tuesday he will have the final say on whether a disgraced brigadier general at the center of a sexual misconduct case retires at a lower rank with sharply reduced retirement pay.
Facing outraged House Democrats, John McHugh said the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair remains open a week after he was spared prison and sentenced to a reprimand and a $20,000 fine.
"The process is still ongoing. I have to make final certifications about rank and retirement," McHugh told the Armed Services Committee.
McHugh could bust Sinclair down to a lower rank which would mean a significantly reduced pension.
Sinclair had a three-year affair with a female captain who accused him of twice forcing her to perform oral sex on him. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges of adultery and conducting inappropriate relationships with two others by asking them for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit email.
The sentence prompted an outcry in Congress that showed no signs of abating during the hearing.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who pushed for changes in the law to deal with sexual assault in the ranks, called the outcome in the case "shocking."
"This raises very serious questions about whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice can fairly be called an instrument of justice," she told McHugh and Army Gen. Ray Odierno.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., offered a long list of the charges for which she said Sinclair pleaded guilty.
"This is a sexual predator," she asserted. "For a sexual predator to gain this rank and given a slap on the wrist suggests that the system doesn't work."
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., questioned whether the general "gets off the hook."
Earlier this month, the Pentagon narrowly prevailed in turning back an effort to strip commanders of the authority to prosecute cases, especially those related to sexual assault, and hand the job to seasoned military lawyers. The questions and outrage among several lawmakers on the House panel indicated that the military will face an even stronger congressional effort to change the military justice system later this year when lawmakers begins work on the defense policy bill.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chief sponsor of the legislation to overhaul the military justice system, has vowed to push ahead with her effort.