Marine Corps general defends public remarks about 'fake news' and sex life jokes, report says
By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today | Published: August 25, 2018
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Marine general who branded stories about sexual harassment at his command as "fake news" and joked at a town hall about his sex life defended his remarks as appropriate, according to a Marine Corps internal investigation obtained by USA TODAY.
In a town hall meeting in April, Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein disparaged articles in USA TODAY that had detailed complaints about the handling of sexual harassment complaints and the toxic work environment found at the Marine and Family Programs Division. His joke about the Navy chaplain who was caught on video having sex outside a pub in New Orleans was "getting more action" than him was an attempt at "self-deprecating humor," he told investigators.
That attempt fell flat. Of the 117 people who attended his talk, "70 perceived some portion of Brigadier General Stein's remarks as offensive, inappropriate, unprofessional or adverse to the morale of the Marine and Family Programs personnel," Brig. Gen. William Bowers, the investigating officer, wrote in his report.
The investigation includes Stein's attempt to explain his remarks and the joke and Bower's conclusion that Stein's comments had undermined "internal and external confidence in his ability to lead an organization responsible for sexual harassment prevention and response, and cast doubt on the Marine Corps' commitment to improve its culture."
Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller stripped Stein of his command and counseled him less than two weeks after his remarks were first reported by USA TODAY.
The Marine Corps and Stein had no comment on the investigation, said Maj. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman.
Stein, in his interview with Bowers, defended his use of the term "fake news." Stein said he was not referring to the investigations involving Sherry Yetter and Traci Sharpe, two civilian Marine employees who have accused Maj. David Cheek of making explicit sexual overtures to them. Cheek has denied their allegations. Neller ordered a new investigation, and Cheek will face a panel that could kick him out of the Marine Corps.
Rather, Stein said, he was referring to the series of stories in USA TODAY that had portrayed problems at his command dating to 2014, before he took charge. One article detailed sexual harassment, racism and a cash settlement to an official who was forced from her job at the division. The story was based on a 2015 internal report about the toxic work environment at the division.
Stein told Bowers that he didn't think he had read the articles but was "aware of them." His "fake news" remark was used to "counter the repeated negative portrayal" of his division by the paper and not as a comment on the complaints by the women, he said.
"I don't see how anyone could see the 'fake news' comments as an attack on an investigation or the complainants," he told Bowers. "The reporter threw us under the bus and attacked my people – that was my understanding. I never mentioned the investigation, its closing, or re-opening, or the people involved."
No political commentary intended
He also denied that his use of fake news was meant to echo President Donald Trump, who regularly uses the term in an attempt to diminish coverage he doesn't like.
"Additionally, my reference to 'fake news' was not intended to invoke or refer in any way to the President of the United States," he wrote in a statement to Bowers. "'Fake news' is now a common term used by many people regardless of political affiliation."
Stein's attempt at humor prompted one audience member to phone the Naval Criminal Investigative Service hotline and lodge a complaint that Stein had said, "It's a shame that as an aviator I have to live vicariously through a Navy chaplain," the report notes, "and that this chaplain was 'getting more action' than he was."
Stein, a pilot, said he recalled using slightly different language. The chaplain, Navy Capt. Loften Thornton, was fired in March from his post in New Orleans with Marine Corps Forces Reserve.
"My intent was to use the joke referencing the chaplain to break the ice, build rapport and connect with my division using a little humor and levity," he wrote in his statement.
One of Stein's subordinates, whose name was redacted in the report, told investigators that Stein previously had been warned that some of the comments he had made during staff meetings and in the workplace were "inappropriate, describing them as 'frat boy' humor, amateurish, or unprofessional."
Bowers, the investigator, found that Stein may have believed that his comments were not "intended to pollute or degrade the work environment or set conditions for others to sexually harass or reprise against co-workers, (but) they could easily be seen as having that effect."
Several witnesses expressed concern that responding to investigators' questions about Stein would prompt retaliation from him, Bowers noted.
At the conclusion of the town hall meeting, the report says, General Stein opened the floor of the Scuttlebutt Theater at the Marine Corps museum at Quantico for questions.
"No one asked any questions," the report notes.
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