Tailhook judge assails Navy's chief

February 09, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A Navy judge dismissed three of the four remaining cases in the Tailhook scandal yesterday, stating that the Navy's top admiral misrepresented his knowledge of what occurred at a bawdy convention for aviators and tried to manipulate the investigation.

In a decision with broad implications for the Navy, the judge, Capt. William Vest Jr., concluded that Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the chief of naval operations, used "unlawful command influence" to "manipulate the initial investigative process" and the subsequent nTC discipline process "in a manner designed to shield his personal involvement in Tailhook '91."

Admiral Kelso has repeatedly denied that he witnessed any inappropriate behavior in the two days he attended the Las Vegas convention of a group of retired and active-duty Navy and Marine Corps aviators, contractors and civilians who support carrier-based aviation.

Pentagon investigators concluded that 83 women were assaulted or molested at the convention, most of them on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, where men lined the hallway on several nights in September 1991 and grabbed women as they tried to pass.

Three inquiries undertaken by the Navy and the Defense Department have supported Admiral Kelso's contention.

But Captain Vest, who issued the decision in Norfolk, Va., found that despite Admiral Kelso's denials, more than a dozen witnesses placed him at the scene of the misconduct and said he did not intervene.

He said it was wrong for Admiral Kelso to appoint the officer who supervised the investigation because he had a stake in the outcome.

The Navy has struggled to repair its tarnished image as a male-dominated service hostile toward women since the scope of the scandal came to light nearly two years ago.

But few of the cases have resulted in major disciplinary action, and the criticism against Admiral Kelso, the Navy's ranking officer, is another blow as the Navy tries to put the incident to rest.

It was not clear whether yesterday's ruling would affect any earlier cases. Originally, 140 men were implicated in the scandal; action against 70 was dropped almost immediately for lack of evidence.

Of the others, about 50 were fined or disciplined in other ways. The three cases dismissed yesterday were the only ones to reach trial, leaving only one case pending, involving a Marine lieutenant colonel.

Navy officials said yesterday that they were reviewing Captain Vest's 111-page ruling before deciding whether to appeal to the Court of Military Appeals, the military's highest court.

Navy officials said that decision is up to Vice Adm. J. Paul Reason, the officer Admiral Kelso appointed to supervise the investigation.

A spokeswoman for Admiral Kelso said he would not comment on the matter, pending Admiral Reason's decision. But a senior Navy official said Admiral Kelso was "really personally offended" by the judge's searing indictment.

Admiral Kelso, 60, is scheduled to retire July 1.

Last fall, the Pentagon censured three admirals and took milder administrative action against 30 other senior officers, including Admiral Kelso, for failure of leadership at the convention. Admiral Kelso received a letter of caution, which did not go into his file.

Navy Secretary John Dalton subsequently decided to dismiss Admiral Kelso for his handling of the Tailhook affair, but on Oct. 1 he was overruled by Les Aspin, then secretary of defense.

Captain Vest's ruling was criticized by some former Navy officials who testified before him in the past three months.

"My comments were taken out of context," said Barbara Pope, a former assistant Navy secretary, who said a statement she made about Admiral Kelso's activities at the convention was misconstrued in Captain Vest's decision.

Captain Vest's ruling halted the Navy's prosecution of Cmdr. Thomas Miller, Cmdr. Gregory Tritt and Lt. David Samples.

Lieutenant Samples was charged with assaulting a woman at the convention. The others were charged with failing to stop junior officers from grabbing and molesting women at the convention.

Defense lawyers have pinned their case on conflicting reports about Admiral Kelso's whereabouts at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Admiral Kelso said he was there on Friday and Saturday nights, Sept. 7 and 8, but he and an array of witnesses who testified before Captain Vest said he did not go to the third floor on Saturday night, when most of the assaults took place.

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