TAMPA — The military aircraft was going to take one of the nation's top military commanders to MacDill Air Force Base. Scott Allan Bennett wanted a seat.
Bennett was in uniform and said he was on active duty with "emergency orders" to get to MacDill. So he was allowed on the flight carrying Adm. Eric Olson, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Once at MacDill, Bennett got base housing after saying he was Olson's aide. Bennett said he couldn't immediately provide his orders because they were top secret.
Once assigned housing in January 2010, Bennett stashed 10 guns and 9,000 rounds of ammunition at his MacDill home.
That is prosecutors' version of what may have been one of the most significant security breaches in recent MacDill history as Bennett's criminal trial opened Monday in U.S. District Court.
Bennett, 40, a civilian defense contractor and Army reservist not on active duty, is charged with lying to get his MacDill apartment, wearing an unauthorized uniform and keeping weapons without registering them with base security.
Bennett's attorneys suggested to jurors in opening statements that MacDill officials, embarrassed by bad publicity, were looking for a scapegoat to obscure their own failures in not following base policy.
"Witnesses have to stay on the good side of the government," said defense attorney David Chalela. "Each witness has a job they could lose."
Bennett's lies became apparent, prosecutors say, shortly after his DUI arrest at one of MacDill's gates on April 23, 2010. Police said he was carrying a loaded, concealed handgun. A second gun was found in his BMW.
At the time, a MacDill spokesman minimized the incident, saying it was a "failure to follow policy and procedures" and "not a security breach." But during opening statements, even prosecutor Sara Sweeny told jurors it was a security breach.
MacDill is home to the two military commands leading wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — SOCom and U.S. Central Command. It is considered one of the military's most important bases.
Amanda Weeks, a civilian who headed a MacDill housing office, testified that only active-duty military personnel were allowed to get a base apartment or house. Some bases can rent to civilian contractors or retired military if units are empty, she said.
But that's never the case at MacDill, Weeks said, because of the base's high security.
She said Bennett showed up at her office wearing a uniform and said he had been instructed by Olson to get base housing as soon as possible.
Bennett could not immediately provide his orders, citing security concerns, Weeks said. But that was not a surprise to her. Weeks said military personnel, especially generals and their aides, were sometimes delayed in providing orders. She said she was allowed a judgment call to allow personnel to get housing even if they did not immediately have their orders.
But Weeks said that policy became a casualty of Bennett's arrest. Now personnel must find other housing arrangements if they can't provide orders up front. They can't get housing even if it means they must sleep in a car off base, Weeks said.
After Bennett's arrest, "I became sick to my stomach because of the situation," Weeks said, saying Bennett fooled her with "a very convincing lie."
A defense lawyer asked: Why was she sick?
"I was worried about what he could have done," Weeks said. "He was not supposed to be on post. He had very scary weapons in his home."
Prosecutors say in court papers that it wasn't the first time Bennett used subterfuge to get into a location where he was not allowed.
Earlier this year, prosecutors say, Bennett tried to gain entrance to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, a military post in Virginia, while dressed in a police uniform.
Last month, records show, Bennett got into a closed event at the Embassy of Finland in Washington while wearing a military uniform without authorization.
A judge will decide if lawyers will be allowed to tell jurors about those incidents. Bennett's trial continues today.
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.