WASHINGTON — Military officials worked to reassure lawmakers on Wednesday that they are holding senior leaders accountable for misconduct, despite concerns from Hill Democrats that many problematic cases are simply swept aside.
“Only a very small percentage of these officials fail to uphold the high ideals and ethics required of their critical positions,” said Glenn Fine, principal deputy inspector general for the Department of Defense.
“However, some do commit misconduct, either willfully or negligently. When they do, they need to be held accountable.”
The hearing, the first for the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel this year, came amid new charges in a wide-ranging Navy scandal that has enveloped at least 60 admirals for possible violations of military ethics rules. Democrats on the panel also noted numerous public cases of inappropriate relationships and sexual harassment among senior military personnel in the last year.
But Fine said the number of substantiated misconduct cases against senior leaders in recent years has actually decreased, from a high of 85 in 2012 to 49 last year. That represents about 2 percent of the total senior officer corps.
He credited the success to “a more thorough complaint intake process,” but noted that the time to finish investigations nearly doubled from 2015 to 2017, to 472 days.
Republican members of the panel said they want to see that process sped up, saying they believe the biggest problem facing the military is frivolous complaints being filed against senior leaders.
“I’m seeing good people get dragged through the mud for no reason whatsoever,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio and an Army Reserve officer. “That’s absolutely ridiculous.”
But Democrats on the committee expressed concerns that the numbers don’t show a large number of cases that are completely ignored, or senior officers found guilty but given light punishments for their offenses.
Panel ranking member Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said she sees a military culture of “different spanks for different ranks” and worried that “we see everyday troops court-martialed for what a general officer gets a slap on the wrist for.”
Military officials pushed back on that assertion, insisting that generals and admirals face harsher punishment than lower-ranking service members.
“What really hurts a general officer is a letter of reprimand,” said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. “[After review], you could lose one, two or three stars, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement pay.”
Speier and other Democrats said that punishment pales in comparison to a young service member who loses their career for similar offenses. They also bristled at military leaders’ assertions that most of the offenses found in misconduct cases are “technical” issues like improper command actions, not criminal offenses.
About 15 percent of all misconduct findings in the last five years dealt with inappropriate relationships or sexual harassment.
The questioning drew a harsh response from several Republican members, who have opposed calls from critics to separate some military justice proceedings from the Defense Department chain of command.
Officers testifying at the hearing called the idea potentially “devastating” to the military. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla. and an Army veteran, accused Democrats of “trying to trash the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Speier instead called it critical oversight, and cited a USA Today investigation Tuesday that accused senior Marine Corps officers of ignoring sexual harassment complaints by two women.
“I do think we have different standards for punishment here,” she said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.