In the #MeToo era, military senior misconduct faces new scrutiny
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 7, 2018
WASHINGTON – In a wide-ranging congressional hearing covering a slew of senior military misconduct problems, Rep. Jackie Speier held up the latest headline story in a newspaper that detailed claims from female victims of inappropriate sexual behavior from a superior.
This time, the claims were against a Marine Corps officer, Maj. David Cheeks, who has denied the accusations, according to the USAToday report.
Speier, the ranking California Democrat for a House Armed Services subpanel that held the hearing, took direct aim at the Marine Corps assistant commandant who testified Wednesday that the service has launched a new inquiry into the matter.
“If you’ve heard anything from the members of Congress over the last few months, we believe the women,” Speier said. “I think we have a huge problem. We have a huge problem in our academies and we have a huge problem in our services. That isn’t even getting to the issue of sexual assault. That’s the issue of sexual harassment. I think we’ve got to do something dramatic to shift the culture.”
The comments came near the close of extended testimony from military leaders before the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel and zeroed in on the current trends, prevention and accountability efforts for senior misconduct complaints ranging from ethics violations to theft to sexual assault. Senior military officers include the rank of 0-7 and above.
Several lawmakers on the panel and military leaders said while misconduct complaints continue, they still comprise a small minority of the military.
“While one incident of senior leader misconduct is too many, it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of senior leaders serve with distinction,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., chairman of the subpanel. However, “military leadership must continue to ensure that all senior leaders uphold the highest standards of ethical conduct, and when senior leaders fall short, they must be held appropriately accountable.”
Two hearing panels of service inspector generals and vice chairs told the committee Wednesday that they’ve seen significant progress addressing a slew of senior misconduct complaints that peaked in recent years, but plenty of work remains to finally get a handle on the problem.
For example, a Department of Defense Inspector General report presented at the hearing said the number of documented complaints of senior misconduct dramatically increased from 2008 to 2012, but has stabilized since then. And since 2013, the services have seen 1,000 such complaints, with the Army claiming the largest share of those at nearly 500.
“We do acknowledge problems exist,” said Lt. Gen. David E. Quantock, the Army’s Inspector General. But “while recent headlines on Army senior leader misconduct give the appearance of widespread misbehavior, the truth is most transgressions are technical violations committed by a very small minority.”
Quantock said the most common confirmed complaints involving general officers are misuse of government resources, failure to follow regulations and failure to take action. Such claims involving inappropriate relations or sexual misconduct during the last decade involve less than one percent of the Army officers.
The top allegation, however, remains whistleblower reprisal, he said, which sees a low rate of being proven true.
Speier expressed concern that there has been a new uptick in complaints between 2015 and 2017. During that period, misconduct complaints rose 13 percent, she said. Speier said several high-profile misconduct cases in recent years are illustrative of a “deep and systematic problem” in the armed forces.
“Leaders set the standard, and when that leadership is toxic, it drips down to all levels of the military,” she said. “Based on the DOD Inspector General’s own data, it is clear that the current system of deterrence is not working.”
However, to prevent future misconduct, several measures are in place, from specialized training for new senior officials to boosting investigative efforts and data collection, the military leaders said. For example, the Army will be installing a new General Officer Readiness program late this spring that will also translate into lowered rates of misconduct, said Gen. James McConville, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff.
Speier was also concerned by the large number of allegations that are dismissed and potential under-reporting of such claims. She also defended Congress’ role in the process.
“We have an obligation to look at the process,” she told military leaders. “Why is it Congress often times is the last to know? We have oversight responsibility. You should come to us when you have an issue with a senior officer so we are not reading about it in the newspaper.”
Some lawmakers raised concern, however, that some claims could ruin an innocent officer’s career because of the time it takes to clear an investigation. The military leaders said they have hundreds of pending cases, and each probe can take six months or longer.
“Investigations take long,” Quantock said. “We put people through hell.”
The delays and backlogs may be fueled by a lack of sufficient staffing, said Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Defense. He said with a staff of 1,600, the Defense Department inspector general’s office could easily use another 100 workers.
“You can only do more with less for so long,” Fine said. “It does affect timeliness.”
As for the Cheek case, Gen. Glenn Walters, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said the service learned Monday night about a new complaint in the case, which dates back to 2013. A new victim came forward last year and now two women who have filed claims against Cheek said the service did nothing to address their concerns.
“We have our lawyers looking in it and they are actually with the complainant right now working up the mitigation plan,” he said. “One of the problems is getting people to report and having trust in the system.”
House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo, shakes hands with Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. David E. Quantock before a hearing on senior military leader misconduct, Feb. 7, 2018 on Capitol Hill. Behind them are Navy IG Vice Adm. Herman Shelanski; Air Force IG Lt. Gen. Stayce D. Harris; and Marine Corps IG Brig. Gen. David A. Ottignon.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES