Lax probe of sex scandal gets 3 admirals removed They tried to avoid publicity on Tailhook

September 25, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In a blistering critique of the Navy's inquiry into sexual assaults at an aviators' convention last year, a Pentagon report made public yesterday says that senior Navy officials deliberately undermined their own investigation to avoid negative publicity.

Moreover, the report said, some admirals sabotaged their agents' efforts because of their own hostility toward women. It is the first time the Pentagon has directly accused senior Navy officials of suppressing their own investigation into the assault of at least 26 women, including 14 officers, at the Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas.

The report portrays a leaderless inquiry mired in internal bickering that failed to grasp the scope of the crisis.

At one point, the report said, the commander of the Naval Investigative Service, Rear Adm. Duvall (Mac) Williams Jr., and the assistant navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, Barbara S. Pope, had a "screaming match" in a Pentagon corridor about female aviators, with Admiral Williams comparing female Navy pilots to "go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers."

As a result of their leadership failure, two admirals who supervised the inquiry will be forced to retire, the Navy said. Another admiral will be relieved and reassigned to another job.

The report is the latest broadside to the Navy, which is struggling to shed its image of a male-dominated service that remains hostile to women, and one that cannot conduct an objective, competent investigation.

"I need to emphasize a very important message: We get it," Acting Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe, told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon yesterday.

In response to the report, Mr. O'Keefe said that Admiral Williams and Rear Adm. John E. Gordon, the Navy's judge advocate general, were taking early retirement, although Admiral Gordon said in an interview he had planned to retire Nov. 1 anyway.

A third officer, Rear Adm. George W. Davis 6th, the naval inspector general, would be relieved of his duties and be reassigned, Mr. O'Keefe said. The report sharply criticized all three officers.

The report also criticized the Navy's second-ranking civilian, Under Secretary J. Daniel Howard, for weak leadership in failing to control and coordinate the inquiry.

But Mr. O'Keefe said that Mr. Howard would stay on because he was a victim of a situation where, "It became an impossible task to coordinate an effort in which the individual investigative arms refused to cooperate with each other."

The report issued yesterday by the Defense Department's deputy inspector general, Derek J. Vander Shaaf, lays out in blunt, often profane language, a withering attack on outdated attitudes toward women.

In one incident, the report says, Admiral Williams met with a female Naval Investigative Service agent to discuss the statement of Lt. Paula Coughlin, an admiral's aide who was the first assault victim to come forward.

Commenting on Lieutenant Coughlin's use of profanity in her statement, in her description of what she had said to her attackers, the agent says Admiral Williams said that any woman who would speak like that "on a regular basis would welcome this kind of activity."

The report also chronicles Mr. Howard's ineffective attempts to halt the internecine warfare between the two investigating agencies, which frequently refused to share information on a timely basis.

The Navy's top lawyer, Admiral Gordon, was of little use in bTC settling the disputes, the report says.

Even when they were investigating, Admirals Williams and Davis shied away from interrogating their fellow admirals, the report concludes. Admiral Davis told investigators that a "witch hunt" for senior officers who ignored lewd behavior would not solve the Navy's problem.

Pentagon investigators concluded that Admiral Davis shielded senior officers by failing to hold them individually responsible for misconductat the convention.

The report quoted Admiral Williams as saying that his agency did not have a chance of solving the investigation. It concluded that Admiral Williams's "overriding goal, and the motivations for his actions, was to keep the investigation within narrow limits and to dissuade investigators from pursuing issues that might lead them to question the conduct of senior officers at Tailhook '91."

Admiral Williams said in a statement that he decided to retire because it was "fundamentally unfair that I could be tried, convicted and sentenced by the DOD IG [Defense Department's inspector general] without due process in a report containing so many inaccuracies and distortions."

Admiral Gordon said in a statement that the Pentagon inspector general's "investigation is flawed and factually incorrect. In the coming days, I will do everything I can to set the record straight."

Spokesmen for the two other officials said they would not comment on the report.

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