For flag officers, an IG probe usually means early retirement
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 20, 2017
VICENZA, Italy — If the investigation into Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington’s alleged flirtatious texting of a local woman proceeds like similar past probes, he’ll join an Air Force three-star, a Marine four-star and scores of other senior officers in undergoing months of turbulence, followed by retirement.
Harrington, commander of U.S. Army Africa since June 2016, was suspended from command Sept. 1 after allegations that he’d for months exchanged messages with an enlisted soldier’s young wife who he’d met at the gym.
The Army Inspector General opened an investigation just as some of the messages were provided to the press.
Although the investigation was just beginning, experts said that the texts, harmless in other circumstances, would likely be enough to support a finding of conduct unbecoming an officer.
Among the factors are Harrington’s rank and marital status, as well as the woman being the wife of an enlisted soldier.
Although the soldier was not in Harrington’s chain of command, he fell under Harrington’s court-martial convening authority.
“It’s pretty clear it’s conduct unbecoming an officer,” said Boston law professor and former Army lawyer Victor Hansen, who reviewed some of the messages.
Hansen has represented a dozen senior officers undergoing IG probes, which are administrative and intended to investigate a variety of misconduct, including minor criminal matters.
Similar cases have resulted in a letter of reprimand from the vice chief of staff, which would effectively end a general’s career, Hansen said.
That assumes no other misconduct is unearthed by the investigation, Hansen said, which could delve into Harrington’s texts, emails, travel vouchers, expense reports and more.
There have been no allegations that Harrington and the woman, who has requested anonymity, engaged in anything more than the texting relationship.
The investigations usually begin when an audit turns up potential wrongdoing, or after someone files a complaint.
The investigations are on no particular timeline — some have lasted years — and are usually kept secret, although in some cases the final reports are made public when misconduct is found.
Their subjects, meanwhile, spend their time under a cloud of suspicion, usually as “special assistants” in administrative jobs, unable either to retire or move to a new assignment. They are also provided little information as the investigation churns on.
“They’re left in the dark and they’re basically told nothing,” said Hansen, who called the probes “Kafkaesque.”
One of Hansen’s clients, a major general accused of misusing a government contractor, became so despondent and angry that his wife left him, Hansen said.
“The universal cry of all these guys is, ‘This is so unfair, this is such minor stuff,’ ” Hansen said. “They all say that — and they’re right. But the Army comes back and says that the expectations we have of our senior leadership is very high. If you can’t meet it, sorry.”
Don Christensen, a former Air Force top prosecutor and judge who is now president of Protect Our Defenders, the advocacy group for military sexual assault survivors which received the alleged Harrington emails from the woman, said top military officers enjoy enormous prestige and power and should act accordingly.
“You’ve accepted the position of a two-star — these things can’t happen now because of how it affects your authority as a two-star,” Christensen said. “In that position, you just can’t do it.”
Two-thirds of Hansen’s cases involved some sort of sexual misconduct, he said. The misconduct ranged from suggestive emails to affairs to one senior officer back from Iraq with an alcohol problem who groped multiple women, including a major, at a party.
Had any of them been wrongly accused? “Oh, hell, no,” Hansen said.
Hansen said on average the IG investigates six to 12 senior officers a year for some sort of sexual misconduct.
Harrington is the latest known senior military officer to become ensnared in an investigation into flirtatious messages.
Last year, Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, formerly the service’s assistant vice chief of staff, was forced to retire after a seven-month IG investigation into romantic and sexually suggestive emails he sent to a colonel he called “my lovely girl.”
Hesterman had “adversely affected the Air Force, helped dissolve a marriage between two members, eroded good order, discipline, and respect for authority,” the IG report said. Two months after the Air Force chief of staff issued a reprimand, Hesterman was retired as a lieutenant general.
Marine Gen. John Allen underwent an email investigation in 2012 while he was the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The FBI, which was investigating then-CIA Director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair, discovered emails Allen had exchanged with a married Tampa, Fla., socialite and hostess.
Anonymous senior officials described the Allen emails as racy and flirtatious. But after a two-month investigation, Allen was cleared of conduct unbecoming an officer, an anonymous senior official told the media, and was “completely exonerated.”
A month later, Allen’s retirement was announced. Allen declined the offer to become NATO’s supreme allied commander, saying that he wanted to take care of his family, that his wife had suffered chronic health problems and that the investigation had taken a toll on them both.
Allen’s IG report and the emails have never been released.
A few of Hansen’s clients were philosophical in the face of their downfall, admitted that they had erred and had gotten caught, and accepted their fates, he said.
“The one thing these guys luck out with is that the Army has no interest in making these cases public. From a defense standpoint, that’s your leverage,” Hansen said. “You go in there, own up to it and say, ‘Let’s get me gone.’ ”