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Head of California Air National Guard removed amid allegations of cover-up and retaliation

In this April 12, 2006, file photo, then US Air Force Lt. Col. Clay "Slam" Garrison, Weapons Officer assigned with the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard, explains the units area of coverage on a map of California in Fresno, Calif. The California Air National Guard says its top commander, Major General Clay Garrison, has been relieved of command and will be replaced by Brigadier General Gregory Jones.

BEN MARGOT/AP

By ALENE TCHEKMEDYIAN AND PAUL PRINGLE | The Los Angeles Times | Published: April 5, 2019

LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — Maj. Gen. Clay L. Garrison, the top commander of the California Air National Guard, was relieved of command this week for being unable to “maintain a positive command climate,” guard officials announced Friday.

A guard spokesman said the California Military Department had lost “faith, trust and confidence” in Garrison’s ability to lead the organization.

Brig. Gen. Gregory F. Jones, who has served as assistant adjutant general since December 2017, was appointed to replace him, according to a memo provided to The Times.

The decision to replace Garrison comes two months after The Times detailed allegations that whistleblowers at the guard's Fresno base suffered reprisals for questioning actions or conduct, including an incident in which someone urinated in a female guard member's boots.

In interviews with The Times, several current and former members of the guard have described a culture of retaliation by high-ranking officers and mistrust in the inspector general system intended to hold them accountable. At least five guard members from the 144th wing, including a pilot who was killed in October in a crash during a training mission in Ukraine, filed formal complaints.

The urine incident and its aftermath fueled suspicions within the guard that high-ranking officers, including Garrison, mishandled two investigations to find the perpetrator and tried to bury the episode to protect someone who may have been involved, according to interviews and guard records obtained by The Times. Some in the wing refer to the scandal as “Pissgate.”

The saga dates back to March 2015, when Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda, a 15-year veteran of the guard, was about to change into her uniform in a women’s bathroom at the 144th Fighter Wing when she discovered her boots had been soiled.

Members of the 144th’s security forces, who police the base, conducted two investigations, according to internal investigative records obtained by The Times. Both were inconclusive and the case was closed.

Pineda filed a whistleblower complaint, in which she wrote that she feared she’d be forced out of the military because some had speculated that she urinated in her own boots “for attention.” She wanted the DNA test to clear her name.

A 144th pilot, Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, also filed a complaint alleging that commanders punished him — including by withholding his pay on occasion — for going to bat for Pineda by telling a superior that the first investigation might have been mishandled.

The following year, in May 2016, officers at the 144th destroyed the evidence collected from the crime scene, saying it was old and no longer needed. The evidence included Pineda’s boots and a vial of urine collected from the bathroom floor that was never tested for DNA.

Col. Dave Johnston, a commander who signed off on the evidence destruction, said in statements provided to The Times that he had consulted with Garrison before doing so. Garrison ran the base at the time of the incident.

Garrison’s only guidance, Johnston wrote, was that he first confer with the 144th’s judge advocate general at the time. She also signed off on the request to discard the evidence.

The California air guard is the second largest, after New York’s, in the Air National Guard, which is a force of more than 100,000 pilots, other officers and enlisted people. Many of the pilots are part-time reservists, signing up after careers in the U.S. Air Force, and some fly in their civilian lives for commercial airlines.

The guards function as state militias whose leaders report to their respective governors. They patrol state airspace and stand ready to respond to natural disasters and large-scale terrorist attacks.

The 144th is the biggest wing in the state, home to roughly 115 officers, including about two dozen fighter pilots, and more than 1,000 enlistees in support units.

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