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CNO to admirals: Rethink integrity, behavior in aftermath of scandals

Adm. John Richardson, seen in 2015, gathered more than 300 admirals to talk about fostering integrity. The Navy has been dogged for two years by a major corruption scandal and several other recent embarrassments.

CHARLES OKI/U.S. NAVY

By CRAIG WHITLOCK | The Washington Post | Published: May 18, 2016

The Navy's highest-ranking officer has summoned more than 300 admirals to a special gathering near Washington on Thursday at which he will urge them to place a renewed emphasis on integrity in light of several scandals that have plagued the service.

"Our behavior, as an organization and as individuals, must signal our commitment to the values we so often proclaim," Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, wrote in an unusually blunt message to his fellow admirals before the meeting. "As senior leaders, our personal conduct, and the example it sets, are essential to our credibility."

"When we perform superbly, that is justifiably expected," Richardson added in his message, which was obtained by The Washington Post. "When we misstep, it is a shocking disappointment that brings into question trust and confidence. Some of these missteps are front page news, and rightly so."

Although Richardson did not single out specific cases of misbehavior, the Navy has been dogged by a major corruption scandal involving an Asian defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing Navy officers with cash, sex and luxury goods over a decade.

Three admirals were censured last year for accepting dinners and gifts from the contractor, Leonard Glenn Francis, a Singapore-based businessman widely known in maritime circles as "Fat Leonard." At least two other admirals in the case remain under criminal investigation by the Justice Department. Four lower-ranking officers have pleaded guilty to corruption charges in federal court and are facing prison time.

While the corruption case has been slowly unfolding for more than two years, the Navy's senior officer corps has had to endure other embarrassments in recent months.

In December, the Navy reprimanded a two-star admiral for getting drunk and wandering naked around a Florida beachfront hotel while attending a conference with defense contractors. In January, a one-star admiral was reprimanded and relieved of his command after an investigation found that he had spent hours watching pornography on a Navy computer while at sea.

And in March, under pressure from Congress, the Navy reluctantly denied promotion to the admiral in charge of its elite SEAL teams after the Pentagon's inspector general determined that he had violated the law by retaliating against whistleblowers.

The Navy traditionally has set high standards for its commanding officers and makes a public announcement when they are cashiered for personal or professional lapses in conduct. Those relieved of command, however, are typically officers holding the rank of captain or commander, with admirals rarely getting into trouble.

Richardson delivered his message to his fellow admirals and senior civilian executives in the Navy in advance of their annual meeting to discuss the service's priorities and strategies for the upcoming year. The meeting will take place Thursday and Friday at a conference center outside Washington.

Richardson placed his comments in a broader national security context, saying that officers' character traits were a "fundamental element" of the Navy's drive to maintain its "maritime superiority." He urged the admirals to re-examine their assumptions about the degree to which they are embracing what he labeled the "core attributes" -- integrity, accountability, initiative and toughness.

"I expect some of you will read the words above and say, 'I'm doing that,' " he wrote. "Others may recognize vulnerabilities in others but not themselves. If you call into either of these camps, I urge you to step back and reconsider.

"We share a professional and moral obligation to continuously examine our motivations and personal conduct, and, where required, adjust our behaviors back in line with our values," Richardson added. "We cannot relegate this to our legal counselors. We need to help each other and hold each other accountable - this is leader business."

A spokesman for Richardson, Cmdr. Chris Servello, said that Richardson hoped to generate further discussion on the subject with other admirals on Thursday and Friday. "This will be something that Adm. Richardson will talk about frequently, inside the Navy and outside as well," he said.

The corruption scandal involving the Singapore defense contractor has been percolating since Richardson took over as chief of naval operations in September. It is unclear when the case might be resolved or how many Navy personnel might be implicated.

The investigation has already impacted the Navy leadership. The Navy's intelligence chief, Vice Adm. Ted "Twig" Branch, hasn't been allowed to see or hear any classified information since November 2013, when the Navy announced that he was under investigation by the Justice Department in the case.

Branch has remained in limbo since then. The Justice Department hasn't charged him with any crimes, but it hasn't cleared him, either.

In February, Branch told the news site Military.com that the lingering uncertainty about his status was "frustrating in the extreme." He added: "I am not a danger to national security, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, and the idea that I would be is insulting."

He has drawn sympathy from current and former Navy brass who have criticized the Justice Department for taking so long to investigate officers who had contact with Francis and his contracting firm, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.

"To me, the real scandal is that scores of good people and their families have been affected by something that's gone on for two-and-a-half years, where most people have not been charged, but it hangs over them and affects them," Peter H. Daly, a retired vice admiral who serves as chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute, said in February at a security conference in San Diego.

Branch may end up completing his tenure as the Navy's intelligence chief before the Justice Department can finish its investigation. Last week, the White House nominated his replacement, Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, the head of the Fleet Cyber Command. Her nomination is pending approval by the Senate.
 

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