CNO Defends Actions on Staffer Accused of 'Bad Santa' Sex Harassment

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. U.S. Navy official file photo
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. U.S. Navy official file photo

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has defended his actions in the case of his chief spokesman, who remained on his staff for several months following allegations that he sexually harassed women while dressed as Santa Claus at a Pentagon Christmas party.

"I was advised by legal counsel throughout, and due process was strictly followed to protect the privacy, dignity and safety of the complainants; and the rights" of Cmdr. Chris Servello, Richardson said in a Facebook posting Thursday.

"I followed the prosecutor's recommendations to the letter, imposing several adverse measures on Cdr. Servello, including dismissing him from my staff and re-assigning him to a non-supervisory position," Richardson said.

However, USA Today reported that the reassignment in August occurred several months after a Navy investigator recommended it and only after the newspaper requested documents on the case.

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USA Today cited a December 2016 report from Capt. Peter Hudson, who conducted an initial inquiry of the alleged incidents: "I recommend that Cdr. Servello be immediately reassigned to a billet with no supervisory responsibilities and with dedicated oversight."

The 41-year-old Servello was accused by fellow officers and a civilian of making unwanted sexual passes and slapping a woman on the buttocks while dressed as Santa at the December 2016 Christmas party for Navy public affairs officials, according to documents obtained by USA Today.

In his Facebook posting, Richardson said that once he was aware of the allegations against Servello, "I immediately tasked the Director of the Navy Staff [DNS] to lead a preliminary inquiry.

"At the conclusion of the preliminary inquiry, DNS referred the matter to NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] to conduct a criminal investigation," he said. "Throughout the duration of the investigation, appropriate and effective measures were put in place to ensure a safe environment for the complainants."

In a statement to USA Today, Servello said that NCIS recommended against criminal charges but his career likely is over.

"Ultimately, the allegations were unproven and charges were not filed," Servello said, but "I should have never put myself into a situation where my judgment or my military bearing could be called into question."

Richardson said, "I consider this matter closed. I remain passionately committed to a policy of 'no bystanders' and a Navy where concerns can be raised with trust and confidence that those concerns will be investigated thoroughly, and be appropriately acted on in an environment free of reprisal or retaliation."

The Servello case and Richardson's response drew fire from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has offered legislation to change the way the military handles sexual assault cases.

"I do not believe that Adm. Richardson handled this case appropriately," Gillibrand said.

"There should be an [Inspector General's] investigation to see how he actually made his decisions," she told USA Today.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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