Kelso won't resign as top Navy admiral

February 12, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In an emotional defense of his career and reputation, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the chief of naval operations, denied accusations of deception in the Tailhook scandal yesterday and said he was not prepared to resign.

The 60-year-old admiral was accused by a military judge this week of lying about his activities and whereabouts at the 1991 Las Vegas aviators' convention where 83 females were molested, and of trying to manipulate the investigation to protect himself.

"I categorically deny I did either of those things," said the veteran of 38 years of naval service in a meeting with the press in his Pentagon office that was clearly painful for him. "I am an honorable man. I didn't lie, and I didn't manipulate any process."

He said he had spoken to Navy Secretary John Dalton and had not been asked for his resignation. "I have no intention of resigning," the admiral said, adding that he hopes to continue in the service until his normal retirement date in June.

His fate now rests with Mr. Dalton and Defense Secretary William Perry, who will have to decide whether an officer under such a cloud of accusation can provide the appropriate level of leadership.

Officials in Mr. Perry's office did not return calls yesterday. Most of the federal government in Washington was closed because of the winter storm.

Mr. Dalton sought the admiral's resignation last year during the Tailhook scandal, which stigmatized the service as a sexist, male-dominated organization. But Admiral Kelso appealed to then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin and survived.

The judge, who was formally investigating the participation of three other officers in the scandal, reported in his judgment that the preponderance of evidence indicated that Admiral Kelso witnessed a striptease performance and was in the vicinity of male officers shaving the legs of women at the aviators' convention.

But yesterday the admiral said: "I deny that I did anything untoward or participated in anything untoward. . . . I did not see any lewd conduct." He said he did not know what "leg-shaving" was until the investigation of the scandal began. He had, he asserted, "no idea that anything happened at Tailhook" until the first complaint of harassment was lodged by Lt. Paula Coughlin, a helicopter pilot who announced this week she is resigning because of harassment over her role in the scandal.

The admiral acknowledged yesterday spending one evening at the three-day convention but denied being there a second night when witnesses placed him in the vicinity of various bawdy events.

Admiral Kelso, who is credited with opening many Navy positions to women, said he regreted Lieutenant Coughlin's decision to quit the Navy, observing: "This is a cultural issue we have to work on and change. You can't change everybody's mind and everybody's behavior at once. It takes time. I think we are changing in the right direction."

Asked if he would have handled anything differently, the admiral said: "I wish I had understood the total implications of it in the beginning, but I didn't. Maybe I would have gone about it in a different way."

Admiral Kelso spoke out after the Pentagon decided not to appeal the military' judge's dismissal of the cases against the three officers charged with assault. The judge ruled that that the investigation of the officers was tainted by the manipulation and "unlawful command influence" of Admiral Kelso.

The admiral responded that he had neither chosen the Pentagon's investigating officer, Adm. Paul Reason, out of "primarily personal" interest, as suggested by the judge, nor withheld files from the investigation.

He also said he initially proposed an independent investigation of Tailhook but was turned down.

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