Navy Judge Investigated After Reports He Lied Under Oath

Cmdr. Aaron Rugh (Missouri State Magazine)
Cmdr. Aaron Rugh (Missouri State Magazine)

A Navy appellate judge is the subject of an ethics complaint months after an investigation in The Washington Post indicated he misrepresented his actions while acting as a prosecutor in the trial of an officer accused of inappropriate relationships with Naval Academy students.

In an arraignment for Marine Maj. Mark Thompson at Marine Corps Base Quantico on Monday, military judge Lt. Col. Christopher Greer confirmed that Cmdr. Aaron Rugh was under investigation by Naval Legal Service Command.

"There appeared to be an allegation that he misled, misspoke, any sort of prosecutorial misconduct," Greer told attorneys during the hearing.

A spokesman for the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Carr, said the command "can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a complaint regarding Cmdr. Aaron Rugh."

Rugh remains on the bench, officials confirmed. He declined to comment through the office.

Now, a panel judge for the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, Rugh is the latest officer to come under scrutiny following a March report by the Post that dived deep into the military's criminal and administrative proceedings regarding Thompson, a former Naval Academy instructor.

Thompson was acquitted of sexual assault of two female midshipmen in 2013, but convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer, fraternization and indecent conduct, and sentenced to two months behind bars. At a later administrative board of inquiry hearing, a panel of officers would opt to allow him to continue serving in the Marine Corps.

During this board of inquiry in 2014, Rugh was asked by one of the officers on the panel how the prosecution had proved in the earlier court-martial that Thompson and one of the midshipmen, publicly identified as Sarah Stadler, saw each other following her graduation -- a key contention in the case. According to the Post report, which cited a transcript of the hearing, Rugh said the prosecution team had interviewed Stadler's family.

But both Stadler's mother and her brother denied to The Washington Post that Rugh and his team had ever spoken to them.

"That's a complete and total lie," Stadler's mother told reporter John Woodrow Cox.

The same report would reveal apparent inconsistencies in Thompson's own account of his innocence, resulting in new charges of false official statement and conduct unbecoming an officer. A court-martial is now expected early next year on these charges.

The Post story would also lead to the removal of Maj. Mike Pretus, another instructor at the Naval Academy. Pretus would ultimately agree to testify against Thompson in exchange for immunity, telling investigators both men had been involved in a threesome with the same midshipman in 2011.

In Monday's arraignment, Greer revealed he had had a conversation with another military judge shortly after reading The Washington Post story about whether they, on the judiciary side, would have to take any action if an ethics complaint should arise in light of the reporting. They ultimately determined they needed to take no action as Rugh had moved to an appellate post.

"Anyone who looked at The Washington Post article might have said, 'Are there any charges that might potentially be forthcoming?'" Greer said.

He was ultimately informed by Navy-Marine Corps Trial Judiciary Chief Judge Capt. Moira Modzelewski of the existence of a complaint, he said, but did not know who filed it.

According to Navy and Marine Corps rules governing the professional conduct of attorneys, ethics complaints that are verified and determined to be significant breaches of appropriate conduct may result in disciplinary action, including corrective counseling and suspension.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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