Bias probe in Aberdeen cases planned Army to examine agents' methods and motivations

NAACP chief 'heartened'

Criminal command defends handling of sex allegations

March 21, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Turning to unfinished business from the 1996 Aberdeen Proving Ground sex scandal, the Army leadership asked its inspector general this week to investigate charges that Army investigators coerced witnesses and targeted only black drill instructors for prosecution.

Acting Army Secretary Robert M. Walker directed the inspector general, Lt. Gen. Larry R. Jordan, to look into whether the Army agents used "inappropriate techniques and procedures, knowingly pursued racially motivated allegations and were themselves racially biased while investigating allegations of sex offenses."

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, one of those who raised such concerns, said yesterday he was "heartened" that the Army is looking into the charges, but he repeated his contention of a year ago that only an independent investigation can get to the bottom of the charges.

The IG's investigation will cover the Aberdeen scandal and the case of former Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, who claimed the charges of sexual wrongdoing of which he was acquitted last week were lodged against him because he is black.

Walker directed Jordan to report "as soon as possible." Army officials had no additional comment on the IG's investigation, said Lt. Col. Guy T. Shields, a spokesman.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command has long defended its procedures, strongly denied racial bias or coercion and said its investigation was thorough and evenhanded. The command conducted 1,800 interviews with Aberdeen trainees who attended the U.S. Ordnance Center and School since January 1995, along with another 6,000 interviews worldwide.

Spokesman Paul Boyce said the command "welcomes the inspector general review of its procedures and is cooperating fully with the independent investigation to ensure that any remaining allegations are examined thoroughly."

The Congressional Black Caucus and the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have pressed for an investigation since shortly after the scandal broke in the fall of 1996, expressing concerns about the possibility of bias in filing the charges.

All 12 instructors charged with sexual offenses at Aberdeen were black, and most of the female victims were white.

At the same time, five alleged victims stepped forward in the midst of the Aberdeen investigation, charging that Army criminal investigation agents attempted to coerce them into filing rape charges against instructors.

"I still believe it has to be an outside investigation if we are to get to the truth," said Mfume, suggesting a panel comprising Army officials and civilians.

Mfume said "some inappropriateness occurred" during the Aberdeen investigation. "Bigotry may have played a role in who to investigate and also who not to investigate," he said.

The former Baltimore congressman said "it's all circumstantial and coincidental" but that he is still struck by "the fact that all the drill sergeants [charged] were black."

Neither the NAACP nor the Congressional Black Caucus came up with evidence that Army agents were ignoring allegations against enlisted men or officers of other races.

Last March, Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. pledged to look into the allegations by Mfume and others, but only after the investigations into alleged sexual wrongdoing concluded.

The Aberdeen cases ended last fall. One instructor was cleared, and the remaining 11 were convicted or resigned rather than face courts-martial. McKinney, though acquitted of sexual misconduct, was found guilty last week of one count of obstruction of justice and demoted one rank.

Although the racial issue shadowed the Aberdeen case from the beginning, it was raised directly in only one of the Aberdeen courts-martial. The lawyer for Staff Sgt. Vernell Robinson, Jr., who was charged with having sex with five female trainees, accused the Army of "selectively prosecuting" his client because he is black.

Robinson was convicted of 19 of 20 counts, including sodomy, adultery and communicating a threat. He received a six-month prison term and a dishonorable discharge.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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