U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip A. Stewart, then-19th Air Force commander, gives closing remarks during the 19th Air Force change of command ceremony August 19, 2022, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip A. Stewart, then-19th Air Force commander, gives closing remarks during the 19th Air Force change of command ceremony August 19, 2022, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (Tyler McQuiston/U.S. Air Force)

AUSTIN, Texas — An Air Force general was formally charged Monday with sexually assaulting a subordinate officer despite a recommendation from a preliminary hearing not to move the case to a court-martial.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, who previously commanded the 19th Air Force, is charged with two counts of sexual assault for actions that occurred April 14 at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, according to Air Education Training Command and court documents.

Other charges against him include wrongfully inviting the alleged victim to spend the night in his private hotel room while on official travel between March 6 and 8 in Denver, “extramarital sexual conduct,” pursuing an “unprofessional relationship” between March 8 and May 9, and consuming alcohol within 12 hours of flying an aircraft on April 14.

Stewart will plead not guilty at arraignment, which has not yet been scheduled, said Stewart’s civilian attorney Keith Scherer. He also will insist on a jury trial, which will require convening a panel of three- and four-star generals.

Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, AETC commander, moved forward with the charges although the report of an Article 32 hearing, roughly the equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, recommended the case not go to trial, Scherer said.

Neither AETC nor Scherer made the report available, but the defense attorney said the recommendation was to drop the sexual assault charge because it did not meet the standard of probable cause and to handle the other charges outside of the criminal justice system.

AETC declined to comment in detail on the findings of the hearing, which took place Oct. 24 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. Col. Brian Thompson, a military judge from District 2 at Travis Air Force Base in California, was the presiding officer.

“It was his conclusion that this was not sexual assault,” said Scherer, a former Air Force lawyer. “The most charitable interpretation that I can come up with regarding this charging decision is that it is a misguided attempt to provide cover for a senior officer who is afraid to admit that she cheated on her husband,” referring to the victim.

During October’s hearing, prosecutors described the subordinate officer as someone afraid to go against her boss’s sexual advances. The defense described her as a woman who regretted an affair.

According to evidence presented at the hearing, Stewart, the alleged victim and two other military personnel were drinking alcohol on April 13-14. Once Stewart and the woman were alone, she sat close to him on a couch and began to show him non-sex-related photos.

She told criminal investigators that he kissed her, and she kissed him back. Then the two moved into a bedroom, where he undressed her and then himself, according to evidence discussed at the hearing. During various sexual acts, the woman laughed with, teased and even complimented Stewart.

Later April 14, Stewart participated in a training flight and sent a photo of himself in the aircraft to the woman. The flight occurred within 12 hours of drinking alcoholic beverages, which is not permitted.

Scherer quoted Thompson’s Article 32 report as stating, “No reasonable person in the accused position, would have believed that she manifested a lack of consent to the sexual acts in any way. In fact, the evidence here is insufficient to establish even probable cause to believe the accused committed sexual assault.”

Stewart, a career fighter pilot who served in Afghanistan, will be only the second general officer in the service’s history to face court-martial, according to the Air Force. Maj. Gen. William Cooley was convicted of abusive sexual contact in a court-martial last year at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He was sentenced to a reprimand and a forfeiture of nearly $55,000.

Stewart took command of the 19th Air Force in August 2022, according to his online biography. He was fired from the position in May as the Air Force investigated the allegations.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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