A hearing about senior officer misconduct on Capitol Hill Wednesday quickly became a clash of perspectives on how to hold generals accountable, with impassioned testimony from lawmakers and service officials alike.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, took the military to task for implementing "different spanks for different ranks," and answering misconduct at the senior levels with what she viewed as slaps on the wrist.
Other lawmakers on the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel and some of the inspectors general who testified argued that general and flag officers operated under a microscope, faced stringent accountability actions for even minor misconduct, and were at constant risk of having their careers held up or ended by increasingly frequent whistleblower complaints.
The hearing does not come in a vacuum. The Navy is still in the throes of addressing the Glenn Defense Marine Asia "Fat Leonard" bribery scandal, which resulted in investigations into more than 60 admirals, and criminal charges for some senior officers. In October, USA Today reported than more than 500 senior officials within the Pentagon had had substantiated incidents of misconduct since 2013.
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However, inspectors general from the military services testified Wednesday that the majority of substantiated allegations against the most senior officers pertain to administrative violations and breaches of conduct standards rather than criminal offenses.
In the Army last year, 15 instances of general officer misconduct were substantiated, Lt. Gen. David Quantock, the service's inspector general, told the panel. They ranged from a general who lied on his PT test to disrespect or humiliation of subordinates, he said.
He added that substantiated allegations for inappropriate relationships or sexual misconduct, the cases that most frequently make the news, involve less than 1 percent of the Army's 685 general officers.
In the Navy, there was one substantiated misconduct case in 2017, down from 10 in 2015, said Vice Adm. Herman Shelanski, the inspector general for that service.
"Most of the cases are about gifts acceptance and solicitation," Shelanski said. "So these are the technical, 'going out to lunch and I accepted a gift of lunch from a contractor that was more than the acceptable limit.'"
The Air Force did not provide figures, but Marine Corps Inspector General Brig. Gen. David Ottignon said there had been four substantiations of general officer misconduct in the last three years.
"All of those were administrative in nature: violations of Marine Corps orders for fitness report evaluations. One was in regard to training," Ottignon said.
While the numbers overall are low, Quantock said one category of allegations is skyrocketing: whistleblower reprisal complaints. In the last three years, he said, whistleblower reprisal allegations have increased sixfold, a jump that he called "out of control."
The substantiation rate for whistleblower allegations s around 4 percent, he said.
Quantock noted that he had personally been the subject of two whistleblower investigations. When promotion lists come out, he said, he notices a jump in the number of whistleblower complaints, because more junior service members know a well-timed allegation can end the career of a senior official.
"The reason why the numbers are so high from [the Department of Defense Inspector General] about the rise in complaints is because of the misapplication of whistleblower reprisal," he said. "The law ... talks about grievous [offenses], not downgrading an award. That's the problem. We have hijacked the system, and there's a dark cloud over the general officer corps because, right now, we are getting hammered."
Speier, the subcommittee ranking member, began the hearing with a slideshow of generals she dubbed the "Not-so-fab Five:" generals found guilty of serious misconduct since 2013 who, she said, received only light administrative punishments and little public scrutiny until their offenses were reported in the media.
The list included Army Maj. Gen. John Custer, who made his staff buy "sexy clothes" for a woman with whom he had an inappropriate relationship; Air Force Gen Arthur Lichte, accused of pressuring a subordinate into sex on multiple occasions; Army Maj. Gen. Ralph Baker, who assaulted a woman at an event off-base; Army Maj. David Haight, better known as "the swinging general," whose promiscuous behavior made him a security risk; and Army Lt. Gen. David Huntoon Jr., who saddled his staff with personal errands.
She argued that, in the case of the Fat Leonard scandal, better protection of whistleblowers could have brought the web of misconduct to light sooner.
"Whistleblower protection, I would argue, is not enough protection, and that's why people don't come forward -- because they fear that there will be reprisals," she said. "There were too many people that were engaged in conduct unbecoming officers in that case, and no one called them out."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.