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Old 04-23-2019, 08:20 AM
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Cool The California National Guard's culture of whistleblower retaliation is worse than pr

The California National Guard's culture of whistleblower retaliation is worse than previously known
By: Alene Tchekmedyian &Paul Pringle, LA Times April 23, 2019 at 10:50 AM
RE: https://taskandpurpose.com/californi...er-retaliation

Allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers in the California National Guard are more widespread than the complaints made at a Fresno air base that led to a dramatic leadership shakeup of the organization earlier this month, The Times has found.

Interviews with current and former Guard members and an examination of internal documents show that complaints go well beyond Fresno and extend to the army side as well. The allegations have come from fighter pilots, a top military prosecutor, Special Forces officers and a colonel who hoped to head the organization.

They allege a pattern of both retaliation against whistleblowers and others who accuse their superiors of misconduct and a failure of the Guard's justice system to protect them.

"When a person blows the whistle on wrongdoing, they face almost a guarantee of retaliation," said Dwight Stirling, a reserve judge advocate who heads the Center for Law and Military Policy and alleges he was targeted for investigation after he reported possible misconduct five years ago. "It's meant, as in all cases of retaliation, to send a message that if you hold the managers to account, if you bring to light their misconduct, that they're going to make you pay for it."

After a Times investigation detailed whistleblower complaints and other misconduct allegations at the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, an inspector general for the California Military Department, which oversees the air and army branches of the Guard, found that a culture of reprisal afflicted the wing.

The problems led to the recent ouster of the air Guard's top commander and two high-ranking officers at the Fresno base. The department also directed the air Guard's new commander to put together "climate assessments" of the wing leadership.

In the wake of The Times' reporting, state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) has proposed stronger protections for whistleblowers in the Guard, something he had tried to do more than a decade ago without success while in the state Assembly.

A bill Umberg introduced in February would require the Military Department's inspector general to report to the governor instead of the adjutant general who leads the organization, his office said. Umberg, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is also pushing to include a provision that would allow whistleblowers to sue for economic damages.

"I'm certainly troubled by the acts that I've read about," Umberg said. "As a career military officer, it's antithetical to the culture of the military, which demands respect for all military members."

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Tuesday.

The Military Department could not provide complete numbers on alleged reprisals in California, so it's difficult to quantify the scope of the problem, including whether it has been growing. The department declined to comment on the multiple reprisal accusations.

In all but one of the last five years, the number of complaints reported to the National Guard Assn. of California, a nonprofit veterans group which is backing Umberg's bill, has increased or stayed the same, averaging more than a half-dozen annually in recent years, said its legislative director, retired Col. John Haramalis.

His review of them shows the allegations routinely are given a cursory investigation, if any, then swept under the rug, he said.

Haramalis, who said he once interviewed with then Gov. Jerry Brown to lead the Military Department, had his own experience with making a reprisal complaint.

He alleges that the head of the Military Department, Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, improperly blocked him from transferring to another state to prevent him from promoting. When Haramalis complained, he said, Baldwin questioned senior officers at the National Guard Bureau for negative information to use against him.

Inspectors general for the Department of Defense and each military service are responsible for investigating misconduct and whistleblower complaints.

"You either get no investigation or a sham investigation," said Haramalis, who spent more than three decades in the Guard. "The end results are identical case closed with no further action. By shielding Guard senior leadership from any consequences of their actions, the IG has become the enabler of the very misconduct they were supposed to address. The system has completely collapsed."

Michael Wise says that's what happened in his case. Wise, a state deputy attorney general, retired from the Guard's Special Forces last year as a colonel and decorated combat veteran. He said he faced retaliation for supporting a major in his command who reported that soldiers were short-changed because of persistent problems in the Guard's payroll system.

Wise and the major, John Trent, said the Guard accused them of improperly recommending denial of a soldier's request for a transfer to another state, which would allow him to avoid a combat deployment overseas. Wise and Trent filed inspector general complaints alleging reprisals.

"They dismissed my IG complaint without interviewing my witnesses," Wise said. "The IG system as a whole has been absolutely worthless. Whistleblowers are not tolerated in the Guard, that's the bottom line."

Trent said he is still pursuing his case. He said the decision to challenge his superiors ended his chances of promotion to lieutenant colonel, even though he's the most-senior major in the Guard's Special Forces. The last time he applied, Trent said, a lesser qualified candidate got the position.

"They have a good ol' boy system in place, and anything that attacks that system, they're going to defend against with all their might," he said.

"Once they were called on the carpet for that pay issue, they just retaliated against me and attempted to end my career."

At the 144th Wing, at least five Guard members, including a pilot who was killed in October in a crash during a training mission in Ukraine, have filed retaliation complaints, The Times found. Two of the complaints stemmed from a March 2015 incident in which Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda found that someone at the Fresno base had urinated in the boots she had left in a bathroom overnight.

The incident and its aftermath fueled suspicions that high-ranking officers mishandled two investigations to find the perpetrator and tried to bury the episode to protect someone who may have been involved, according to interviews and Guard records obtained by The Times.

Pineda and Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, a pilot who spoke up for her, filed complaints.

The Times investigation led to the removal earlier this month of Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, the top commander of the air Guard. He was pushed out because the Military Department had lost "faith, trust and confidence" in his ability to lead, a spokesman said. Two 144th commanders Col. Dan Kelly and Col. Victor Sikora were also ousted.

A report by the Military Department's inspector general said there's at least "the perception of reprisal" at the 144th. The new commander of the air Guard, Brig. Gen. Greg Jones, was instructed to work to "restore the confidence and trust in the IG system" at the Fresno base.

Stirling said he wrestled with a similar lack of confidence and trust.

"I'd say the vast majority of people who know about wrongdoing don't dare to say a word," Stirling said. "They are faced with a conflict of, do they do what's right and blow the whistle? Or do they look out for their career and their livelihood?"

He enlisted in the Army Guard after the Sept. 11 attacks, eventually becoming its head prosecutor.

Supervisors praised him in evaluations as having "limitless" potential and being "more than a first-rate" judge advocate, according to his evaluations.

He said that all changed in 2014, when he reported that a handful of military lawyers in the Guard were not licensed to practice law in the state. One had failed the bar exam in California, Stirling said, but later passed it in South Dakota. He was then hired as a judge advocate in the California Guard.

"That's just blatantly against the rules," Stirling said. He took his complaint to to the state bar that year.

Within months, he said, he was put under a sham investigation. Three years went by, he said, before he'd learned the details of the inquiry, which barred him from promotions while it remained open.

Stirling said he never was given an opportunity to challenge the allegations, which focused on a court-martial where he and his supervisors sought the immediate imprisonment of a soldier convicted of sexual assault.

He said the judge who signed off on the incarceration later launched an investigation into Stirling and accused him of failing to disclose that case law prohibited the judge from imprisoning the soldier without first getting approval from the commander who convened the court martial.

Stirling said the judge himself should have known about the law, but cleared himself of wrongdoing and blamed Stirling instead. Stirling said he received a career-blunting letter of reprimand.

"I was on the way up. All my evaluations were outstanding," he said. "I report the use of attorneys who are unlicensed, and the whole trajectory of my career starts to take a tailspin."

He filed a whistleblower complaint, he said, but no one investigated it.



2019 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

"IN GOD WE TRUST"
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Old 04-23-2019, 08:23 AM
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Cool California Air National Guard removes commander over threats against whistleblowers i

California Air National Guard removes commander over threats against whistleblowers in 'pissgate' scandal
By: Alene Tchekmedyian And Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times April 15, 2019 at 06:00 AM
RE: https://taskandpurpose.com/californi...ssgate-scandal

A third high-ranking officer in the California Air National Guard has been removed from his position because of complaints he made whistleblowers feel threatened at the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno.

Col. Victor Sikora was relieved of command after engaging in "conduct unbecoming of an officer" by addressing a gathering of Guard members in a manner some found intimidating and humiliating, according to a report released Friday.

An internal inquiry also determined that Sikora improperly "excoriated" a retired pilot for speaking to The Times, the report said.

Sikora did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Last week, Maj. Gen. Clay L. Garrison and Col. Dan Kelly were removed in the wake of a Times investigation that detailed the whistleblower complaints and allegations that officers covered up an incident in which someone urinated in a female Guard member's boots.

Garrison was the top commander of the air guard, and Kelly headed the 144th wing.

Friday's report said that Sikora's "conduct also had a chilling effect" on Guard members by discouraging them from exercising their rights to seek redress through the organization's inspector general, their representatives in Congress or the news media. It said Sikora used insulting and defamatory language in remarks to subordinates.

The report was prepared by Brig. Gen. Tim Rieger, who was tasked by Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, head of the California Military Department, with investigating Sikora's actions.

Sikora was suspended as the wing's Operations Group leader in December. Three days later, the report said, he called a mandatory meeting of his subordinates to discuss his suspension.

At least one person recorded the briefing, where Sikora said anyone filing complaints was causing problems for the wing, according to the report.

"The vast majority of you are good people who are killing it in a high ops tempo year, you're very honorable, red-blooded Americans," Sikora said at the meeting, according to the report. "The vast majority means all of you, except for a couple of you, and they know who they are so we don't need to call them out. But everybody else."

Several Guard members took Sikora's remarks as a criticism of people who had filed complaints with the inspector general.

Sikora's briefing came after The Times began asking questions about alleged retaliation against whistleblowers and the incident in which Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda found that someone at the Fresno base had urinated in the boots she had left in a bathroom overnight.

At least five Guard members, including a pilot who was killed in October in a crash during a training mission in Ukraine, from the 144th wing filed formal complaints. Two of those were related to the urine incident, including one filed by Pineda.

She said in her complaint she feared she'd be forced out of the military because some had speculated that she urinated in her own boots "for attention."

A 144th pilot, Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, also filed a complaint alleging that commanders punished him including by withholding his pay on occasion for speaking up for Pineda.

Both of them, along with others, felt targeted by Sikora's remarks, the report said.

"This clearly means that anyone exercising their right to speak with the IG or the press is not honorable, not a good person, and implies they are not a red-blooded American," the report quotes Swertfager as saying. "... The speech was clearly directed at me and a few other people that have pursued justice through the IG."

Swertfager could not be reached for comment. Pineda declined to comment.

Rieger recommended in his report that Sikora receive a memorandum of reprimand and be relieved of command due to the "loss of faith" in him as a 144th leader.

He also recommended "close monitoring" of any unfavorable personnel actions against complainants or witnesses in the 144th as possible reprisal.

Garrison was removed because the California Military Department, which oversees the air and army branches of the Guard, had lost "faith, trust and confidence" in his ability to lead, a spokesman said.

In a report released after the ousters of Garrison and Kelly, the Military Department inspector general cited findings of the Times investigation two months ago.

"Based on this article, and in addition to other evidence collected, it would appear that there is a culture of reprisal, or at a minimum the perception of reprisal, that has a long stemmed history within the 144th," the inspector general report states.



2019 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

"IN GOD WE TRUST"
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Old 04-23-2019, 08:26 AM
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Cool Head of the California Air National Guard dismissed after alleged cover-up in 'pissga

Head of the California Air National Guard dismissed after alleged cover-up in 'pissgate' scandal
By: Alene Tchekmedyian And Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times April 07, 2019 at 11:26 AM
RE: https://taskandpurpose.com/californi...uard-dismissal

The head of the California Air National Guard and one of its five wing commanders have been removed from their positions amid complaints of reprisals against whistleblowers and allegations of a cover-up of misconduct that reached into the highest ranks of the organization, officials announced Friday.

Maj. Gen. Clay L. Garrison, the top commander of the 4,700-member air guard, was dismissed for being unable to "maintain a positive command climate," said Lt. Col. Thomas Keegan, spokesman for the California Military Department. Keegan said the department had lost "faith, trust and confidence" in Garrison's ability to lead.

In a report released after the ousters of Garrison and Col. Dan Kelly, the commander of the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, the Military Department inspector general cited findings of a Times investigation two months ago that detailed the whistleblower allegations. The complaints disclosed by The Times focused on the leadership of the Fresno base and included an alleged cover-up of an incident in which someone urinated in a female Guard member's boots.

"Based on this article, and in addition to other evidence collected, it would appear that there is a culture of reprisal, or at a minimum the perception of reprisal, that has a long stemmed history within the 144th," the inspector general report states.

Brig. Gen. Gregory F. Jones, who has served as an assistant adjutant general in the Guard since December 2017, was appointed to replace Garrison. Col. Jeremiah Cruz was named Kelly's interim replacement.

Jones was unavailable for comment, Keegan said. Garrison and Kelly did not respond to interview requests.

Keegan said Garrison will retire in the coming weeks. Kelly's future in the Guard has yet to be determined, Keegan said.

Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, who oversees both the air and army branches of the California Guard as adjutant general of the Military Department, was unavailable for comment, Keegan said.

In interviews with The Times, several current and former members of the Guard have described a climate of retaliation by high-ranking officers and mistrust in the organization's inspector general system intended to hold them accountable. At least five Guard members from the 144th wing, including a pilot who was killed in October in a crash during a training mission in Ukraine, filed formal complaints.

The urine incident and its aftermath fueled suspicions that high-ranking officers, including Garrison, mishandled two investigations to find the perpetrator and tried to bury the episode to protect someone who may have been involved, according to interviews and Guard records obtained by The Times. Some in the wing refer to the scandal as "Pissgate."

The saga dates to March 2015, when Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda, a 15-year veteran of the Guard, was about to change into her uniform in a women's bathroom at the 144th Fighter Wing when she discovered her boots had been soiled. Reached by phone Friday, Pineda said, "At this time, I don't have a comment."

Maj. Dan Woodside, a retired 144th fighter pilot who is a witness in an inspector general's Pineda investigation and has complained about how she was treated, said Guard members were afraid to approach Garrison with any reports of wrongdoing, fearing they would be punished.

"Pissgate was just one example," Woodside said. "Gen. Garrison did not act alone in this.... It all happened under his watchful eye, but he was not alone in allowing this to happen."

After The Times began asking questions about the Pineda episode, the military department asked the U.S. Air Force Inspector General's Office to conduct an investigation the third into the Pineda incident. Keegan said Friday he did not know the status of the probe. That inquiry is part of a broader investigation into whether whistleblowers at the 144th suffered reprisals for questioning the actions of their superiors on a range of matters.

The California air guard is the second largest, after New York's, in the Air National Guard, which is a force of more than 100,000 pilots, other officers and enlisted people. Many of the pilots are part-time reservists, signing up after careers in the U.S. Air Force, and some fly in their civilian lives for commercial airlines.

The guards function as state militias whose leaders report to their respective governors. The 144th is the biggest wing in the state, home to roughly 115 officers, including about two dozen fighter pilots, and more than 1,000 enlistees in support units.

A spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom referred questions about Friday's shakeup back to the Guard.

Members of the 144th's security forces, who police the base, conducted two investigations into the Pineda incident, according to internal investigative records obtained by The Times. Both were inconclusive and the case was closed.

Pineda filed a whistleblower complaint, in which she wrote that she feared she'd be forced out of the military because some had speculated that she urinated in her own boots "for attention."

A 144th pilot, Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, also filed a complaint alleging that commanders punished him including by withholding his pay on occasion for going to bat for Pineda.

The following year, officers at the 144th destroyed the evidence collected from the crime scene, saying it was old and no longer needed. The evidence included Pineda's boots and a vial of urine collected from the bathroom floor that was never tested for DNA.

Col. Dave Johnston, a commander who signed off on the evidence destruction, said in statements provided to The Times that he had consulted with Garrison before doing so. Garrison ran the base at the time of the incident.

Garrison's only guidance, Johnston wrote, was that he first confer with the 144th's judge advocate general at the time. She also signed off on the request to discard the evidence.

Dave Bakos, a retired general who served in the Guard for 32 years and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, was among those who said Garrison should have demanded a more thorough investigation from the start.

"It's unfortunate that the young people in the California Air National Guard, our citizen soldiers, have to witness this type of activity that's occurring at the top," Bakos said Friday. "They deserve better."

He said the Guard now has "an opportunity to get a fresh start with new leadership."

Jones began his career as a jet engine mechanic in the Nevada Air National Guard. In California, he held various positions at the 146th Airlift Wing at Port Hueneme before heading the 129th Rescue Wing in the Mountain View area.

In a statement Friday, Keegan said, "The Guard is committed to providing a transparent, respectful and positive command climate. I am confident that Brig. Gen. Jones will be able to lead the organization effectively and with the utmost integrity."



2019 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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Boats

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

"IN GOD WE TRUST"
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