Black Caucus doubts handling of probe at Aberdeen is proper Members question whether black sergeants are being treated fairly

April 10, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed doubt yesterday about whether the investigation of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen Proving Ground is being handled properly and whether black sergeants are being treated fairly.

"We are not satisfied that the investigatory process is credible," Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who chairs the caucus, said after the group met with Army Secretary Togo West.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said that during a tour of Aberdeen several weeks ago by caucus members, a white sergeant told them that investigators had accused him of rape but had never suspended him.

"This drill sergeant stood up and said: 'I was accused of rape. They asked me a few questions and dismissed it,' " Cummings said. "He was angry because there were black drill sergeants who were accused of rape or lesser charges who had been suspended."

Cummings said other white drill sergeants had also acknowledged that their black colleagues have been treated more severely by investigators.

The Army has strongly denied that its investigation is targeting black sergeants unfairly.

About 20 sergeants and instructors have been suspended since last fall, after allegations of sexual misconduct by female trainees. Some who have been suspended belong to other minority groups or are white, but all 11 charged are black. The court-martial of Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson, who faces the most serious sexual misconduct charges, is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

Some black sergeants and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume have also raised concerns about the racial makeup of those charged. Moreover, allegations by five female trainees that investigators tried to coerce them into filing false rape charges have led to calls by the caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for an independent investigation.

West promised to look into the caucus' complaints, Cummings said, but told caucus members he still wants to proceed with the courts-martial and the investigation. Army officials had no comment on the meeting.

Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco, the ordnance center and school's chief of staff, said he was unaware of the specific allegations against the white sergeant. But he said many sergeants and instructors had been questioned about sexual misconduct allegations at Aberdeen; only those who warranted a formal investigation were suspended.

"If they were investigated, they were suspended, regardless of race," he said.

Caucus members said they also received information that those who staffed the Army's toll-free number, set up to take complaints, asked callers about their race.

"One of the No. 1 questions that was asked is, 'Are you black or are you white?' " Cummings said. "We thought that was totally irrelevant."

Cummings said the caucus has asked for the script used by those who staffed the phones.

"No one asked about race," said Riesco, who said he oversaw the toll-free number operation for 35 days. Those handling the calls, he said, asked about a half-dozen questions, including details of the complaint and whether there were witnesses. The information was turned over to Army investigators.

Caucus members expressed concern that some of those suspended have yet to be charged and are "just sitting there not doing anything" at Aberdeen. Members asked that within 30 days, the sergeants and instructors face charges or return to work.

But Riesco said some investigations take longer than others. Investigators are still questioning witnesses.

Waters said that the caucus is also requesting breakdowns on the numbers of women and minorities among the Army investigators and details on their training to determine whether "they are competent to do the investigation."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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