WASHINGTON — Senators called out the Navy’s top admiral and Marine Corps commandant Thursday for the bad behavior and inappropriate comments of officers in their command.
The chastised members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged mistakes, first reported by USA TODAY, and vowed to improve their service cultures in appearances before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., raised the case of “Bad Santa,” the former spokesman for Adm. John Richardson, the chief of Naval operations. Cdr. Chris Servello’s alleged misconduct at boozy Christmas party at the Pentagon while wearing a Santa Claus suit triggered investigations. An investigator reached a preliminary conclusion that he had acted in a predatory way toward young women subordinates. Yet Servello remained on his staff for nine months.
“Do you have a sense of what message members serving under you received from him being allowed to stay in that position, and have you changed your approach because of that incident?” Gillibrand asked Richardson.
Richardson responded that his first priority was to investigate competing claims. But he admitted that resolving the case took too long.
“I have become acutely aware that that may have sent a bad message, particularly to the survivors of the behavior,” Richardson said. “So my radar has been completely re-tuned in terms of sensitivity to that message.
"I hope that we’ve arrived at a good place at the end of this event. It took longer, in hindsight, than it should have. And if I were to do it again, I’d move faster."
Servello has been re-assigned to another Navy post.
“The statements made about me and the alleged incident of (Dec. 2016) remain incomplete and in some cases just plain wrong," Servello said in a statement. "Strip away the agenda and considering only the facts, this is pretty straightforward. The alleged incident was thoroughly investigated and no charges were ever recommended or filed. To continue to be drug through the mud without the benefit of all the facts being made public seems unproductive and unhelpful to all involved.”
Sen. Jack Reed, the panel's ranking Democrat from Rhode Island, asked Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, about "fake news" comments from Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein, whom he relieved on Monday for loss of confidence. Stein had overseen Marine and Family Programs, including sexual assault and harassment prevention programs.
On April 6, Stein dismissed claims of sexual harassment by two civilian women in his command as “fake news” at a packed, all-hands meeting of his command. He also joked about living vicariously through a Navy chaplain who had been fired last month after being caught on video having sex outside a bar in New Orleans.
Reed asked Neller how he is “addressing a culture that might be contributing to this?”
Neller sought to assure Reed that officers such as Stein are exceptions but said the Marines need to do better.
“They are not the majority,” Neller said. “They are not even close to the majority. Yes, you should expect more from a senior officer.
"Are we where we want to be? Are we where you want us to be? No. Are we in a better place than we were a year ago? I believe we are. That’s on me.”
The sexual harassment case, which Neller ordered reinvestigated, as well as Stein’s remarks and the chaplain’s case, were first reported by USA TODAY.
Reed asked Neller if his senior officers are getting the message.
“We’re in a tough business,” Neller said. “It’s taken some people some adjustment. Those who can’t adjust are going to have to get on board or get out.”