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Final case dropped in Tailhook scandal

Published Feb. 10, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

Nearly three years after the drunken debauchery of the 1991 Tailhook convention, the last case has been dismissed.

After all the hearings, investigations and testimony, the final score is this: not one court-martial. On Wednesday, an attorney said the final case had been dropped because of insufficient evidence.

Pentagon investigators concluded that 83 women were assaulted or molested at the September 1991 convention of naval and Marine aviators. Much of this happened on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, where men lined the hallway and grabbed women as they tried to pass. At least some of the women who were molested were themselves officers.

The case came to light after Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin revealed that she had been forced into the hotel "gantlet" of drunken military men. But even in her case, officials were unable to build a case against an assailant.

Of 140 cases stemming from the scandal, no one has been court-martialed. About 50 Navy and Marine officers received administrative discipline.

Since the scope of the Tailhook scandal became known nearly two years ago, the Navy has struggled to repair its tarnished image as a male-dominated service that is openly hostile toward women.

The final case

On Wednesday came word of the final case. Quantico Marine Corps Base issued a release saying Lt. Gen. Charles C. Krulak had settled the case against a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel accused of misconduct. No punishment was imposed.

The Marines did not identify the colonel, but the attorney for Marine Lt. Col. Cass D. Howell said it was his client.

Howell's attorney, David L. Beck of Knoxville, Tenn., said all charges against Howell were dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

"We're just pleased with the results," Beck said. "He's maintained his innocence throughout."

Howell had been charged with lying and obstructing justice during the Tailhook investigation. He also had been charged with assaulting an investigator and with spending a night during the convention at the Las Vegas Hilton with a woman other than his wife.

The Navy judge

The final dismissal came the same week a military judge threw out charges against three other aviators, and in so doing, accused the Navy's top admiral, in effect, of lying and covering up.

Right now, that admiral, Chief of Naval Operations Frank B. Kelso II, is to retire this summer.

The judge who defied him and called him a liar is Capt. William T. Vest Jr., a 28-year Navy veteran who has been a military judge for 8{ years. Vest has taken the Navy to task before, though not on such a scale. The judge said that Kelso tried to limit the investigation of Tailhook to junior officers to protect himself and that Kelso should have known that improper conduct at past conventions likely would be repeated.

Vest, 51, has been working out of the Legal Services Office at the Norfolk Naval Base for almost five years and is the chief judge of the Navy's judicial circuit in the Norfolk area.

Over the years, Vest has handled a broad range of cases ranging from shipboard arsons to a sailor who was accused of failing to tell his dentist that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus.

But for all of Vest's credentialed integrity, defenders of Admiral Kelso say Vest just got it wrong on Tailhook.

Kelso's defender

Vest had ruled it was improper for Kelso himself to have appointed the person to head the Tailhook disciplinary proceedings. Why? Because Kelso had attended the convention and had a stake in the outcome of the inquiry.

"How . . . (the judge) reached his conclusion is beyond me," said Sean O'Keefe, who was the Navy's top civilian in the last six months of the Bush administration.

O'Keefe said Vest's decision does not reflect reality, since it was O'Keefe _ not Kelso _ who came up with the plan to appoint one top officer from the Navy and one from the Marine Corps to handle the Tailhook disciplinary cases.

In fact, O'Keefe said, he made sure Kelso was purposely kept away from any decisions regarding Tailhook to prevent any such accusations of conflict-of-interest.

Late paperwork

The only reason the paperwork appointing Vice Adm. J. Paul Reason to his investigative post was signed by Kelso was that the Pentagon inspector general delayed issuing his report into the sex-abuse scandal until January 1993, and O'Keefe was forced to leave office because of the change of administration, he said.

The Clinton administration did not appoint a new secretary for nearly six months, and the role of acting secretary of the Navy _ and formally putting Reason in his job _ fell to Kelso, O'Keefe said.

The former secretary also took issue with the judge's ruling _ which runs counter to three separate investigations into the matter _ that Kelso was present during the bawdy activity at the convention and did nothing to halt it.

After Wednesday's developments, one dejected senior officer said: "Our record on Tailhook is still pristine; everything that can go wrong has gone wrong."

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