Air Force Gen. John Hyten gave a blanket denial Tuesday of sexual-assault allegations made by a former aide in his bid for Senate confirmation as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"These allegations are false," Hyten said of the charges made by Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser.
"Nothing happened, ever" in his contacts with Spletstoser, he said in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who directed the investigation of Spletstoser's accusations, gave a forceful defense of Hyten's integrity while introducing him to the committee, saying he was "falsely accused."
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She said the investigation was thorough and meticulous, resulting in a 1,400-page report that referenced more than 190,000 e-mails and 150 travel records but found no corroborating evidence against Hyten, currently custodian of the nation's nuclear arsenal as head of U.S. Strategic Command.
"After all of this, I believe the Senate will come to the conclusion that General Hyten was falsely accused and this matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination," Wilson said.
She added that she had no doubt Spletstoser believed she had been assaulted, and "that makes the situation very sad."
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, echoed Wilson in her remarks to the committee. McSally said she realized Hyten had a difficult decision to make in pressing forward with the nomination, adding, "I am grateful you didn't back down."
"I pray the accuser gets the help she needs," said McSally, who acknowledged last year that she was a rape victim during her 26-year Air Force career. But she added that the assistance she believes Spletstoser needs should not come at Hyten's expense.
"Don't take the wrong message" from the investigation of the allegations, McSally advised other members of the committee. The investigation "turned over every rock" and found no corroborating evidence, she said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the committee chairman, strongly indicated that it would move quickly to send Hyten's nomination to the full Senate with a recommendation for approval.
"This committee takes seriously" the allegations against Hyten, he said, but "this committee will not act on unproven allegations."
The sex assault allegations against Hyten dominated the opening stages of the hearing, leaving little time for him to give his views on the planned modernization of the nation's nuclear arsenal, the transformation of the military to confront the rise of Russia and China, the housing crisis for military families and other issues that would be on his plate as the military's No. 2.
Spletstoser's allegations centered on her account of what she said happened in a December 2017 meeting with Hyten in her hotel room while both were attending the Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2017.
She told the Washington Post and the New York Times that Hyten arrived uninvited, saying he wanted to discuss work matters, and pinned her against him, "grinding on me hard" and "then I realize he's ejaculating."
The investigation found no evidence of the hotel encounter, Wilson said in her statement at the hearing. She also that Hyten, as commander of the nation's nuclear deterrent, was one of the most closely guarded officers in the military and his security detail could not confirm a visit to Spletstoser's hotel room.
"That didn't happen," Hyten said later in the hearing of the alleged hotel encounter. "I've never been to her room," he said, "on any occasion." Hyten said he had submitted a DNA sample for the Air Force investigation of Spletstoser's allegations and "I know nothing was found."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, commended Hyten for his testimony at the closed hearing last week and noted that "you did not speak in any way disrespectfully toward your accuser."
However, Hyten agreed with the findings of an investigation in 2018 that resulted in Spletstoser's being removed from her position at Strategic Command and sent back to the Army for reassignment.
The investigation concluded that Spletstoser had created a "toxic leadership" environment, and Hyten said he had been slow to recognize that Spletstoser was abusing subordinates.
Hyten said he "only counselled her verbally about her language. I thought the issue was rough edges around an Army officer."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told Hyten that his failure to deal with Spletstoser's leadership shortcomings until others in his command brought them to his attention "left me with concerns about your judgment. You could not bring yourself to recognize toxic leadership in your command."
In his written responses to advance questions from the Committee on sexual assaults in the military, Hyten said that "one sexual assault in the Joint Force is too many," and he also pledged to work to prevent retaliation by superiors against those who bring forward charges of sexual misconduct.
"If confirmed, I will continue to support efforts to address chain of command accountability, prevent retaliatory behavior, reduce root causes and foster a culture of dignity respect" to create an environment "free from sexual assault and sexual harassment."
At the hearing, Hyten said he was committed to addressing the growing number of reports of sexual misconduct in the military.
"Every time I see the numbers, they seem to be worse," he said.
If confirmed as vice chairman, Hyten said he would seek to "put the right people in place" to "get after this issue." The military has undertaken a number of reforms to curb sexual assaults, he said, but "the numbers say they're not working."
Although Hyten appeared headed to swift confirmation, the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders said the sexual assault allegations should disqualify him.
Retired Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and a former Air Force chief prosecutor, said in a statement that "the Senate cannot confirm General Hyten today without undermining the very values that our military claims to protect."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com