Ex-academy instructor cleared at hearing

Officer receives no punishment for `crude' remarks

September 02, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

A former Naval Academy instructor was cleared yesterday of military charges stemming from sexually explicit remarks he made to midshipmen last year, according to his lawyer, the second setback in recent months to the academy superintendent's campaign against sexual misconduct.

Lt. Bryan Black, a Navy meteorologist who taught classes in the academy's oceanography department, was given only a "non-punitive letter of caution" that will not be entered in his military record, said Charles Gittins, his civilian lawyer.

Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, had charged Black with conduct unbecoming an officer and other offenses for statements that Black acknowledged making on a summer 2005 training cruise to Norfolk, Va.

Several other charges had previously been dropped. The ruling comes more than a month after former Navy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr. was acquitted of rape.

Reached by phone yesterday evening, Black said that the ruling was a "huge relief" for him. He said his comments were mischaracterized, although he admitted that they were "crude" and that saying them "was a mistake on my part."

"This is what should have happened from the get-go," he said, referring to yesterday's ruling by a Navy commander. "There should have been counseling, and if the admiral [Rempt] wanted a piece of me, he should have called me in and yelled at me and sent me on my way."

The decision drew criticism from a prominent women's advocacy group that tracks instances of sexual harassment and violence against women in the military.

Anita Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, said that if these allegations had surfaced in the civilian world, Black would have been fired and the targets of his offensive remarks could have received justice through a civil lawsuit.

"A non-punitive letter of caution does not equate to justice for these individuals," she said. "Regrettably, with the issue of sexual harassment and assault at the military academies, we're again seeing that justice eludes the victims."

Yesterday's ruling follows a move last week by Rempt to downgrade the proceedings from a special court martial - a mid-level military trial often used for misdemeanors - to a formal, closed administrative hearing called "Admiral's Mast," an offer Black had previously refused. This time, Black accepted because the Navy had agreed to have the case presented to an admiral other than Rempt.

Defense lawyers in three alleged sexual misconduct cases have accused Rempt of bowing to political pressure and being overzealous in bringing charges.

"The handling of this case was more a function of outside pressures being placed on [service] academy leadership, at the Naval Academy in particular," said Gittins. Specifically, Gittins has spoken of a "feminist agenda" brought on by pressure from members of Congress and victim advocacy groups since a sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy in 2003.

Judy Campbell, a Naval Academy spokeswoman, declined to comment on the disposition of the case, citing privacy restrictions for closed hearings. She said Rempt had always preferred the legal proceeding that was settled upon. He agreed to have the case decided by another flag officer at the Washington Navy Yard "to avoid any perception of bias or any predetermined outcome."

Two Navy prosecutors who handled the case did not return calls seeking comment.

The hearing, which lasted one hour, was presented to Rear Admiral Terence McKnight, the commanding officer of Naval District Washington.

According to investigative documents, Black, while leading a training cruise to Norfolk, Va., made a reference to male arousal to describe his admiration for battleships while walking with several Mids past a ship. He then reportedly asked a female midshipman if the ships had a similar effect on her, referring to her breasts. On other occasions during the trip, he used several expletives to describe his ex-wife and made other vulgar comments, according to the documents.

A female Mid tearfully testified in January that she was "appalled" by Black's statements. She said that she had accepted his apology but that she confirmed the incident when other female officers reported it and she was questioned by an academy lawyer, Maj. C.J. Thielemann. He had recommended the punishment that McKnight ultimately approved.

Gittins said McKnight lectured Black and also told him that it was unwise to have dinner at a Hooters restaurant, noting that the appearance of impropriety can be problematic for an officer.

The academy has struggled to hold its personnel accountable for sexual misconduct. Since 2001, two midshipmen of 39 accused of sexual misconduct have been convicted at trial. One was a rape charge in civilian court; the other was a child pornography case in a military trial. An academy spokeswoman said the school does not know of any case in which a midshipman has been convicted of rape at court-martial.

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