Days after the Tampa Bay Times reported on ongoing investigations of Florida National Guard leaders over allegations of sexual misconduct and coverup, Gov. Ron DeSantis has named a new commander.
In a conference room in his office at the capitol, DeSantis told reporters Tuesday that Air Force Maj. Gen. James Eifert is the right choice to deal with the investigation.
“I don't have any basis to know how that investigation will shake out,” said DeSantis, a former attorney with the Navy Judge Advocate General. “But I can tell you that if there are merits to the allegations, this is a guy that’s going to clean it up. This is not something that would be acceptable under his leadership.”
Eifert, 59, said ongoing investigations will be a “significant priority” once he assumes command.
“I have very little familiarity at this point,” he said.
Eifert, scheduled to take charge in a Camp Blanding ceremony April 6, will replace Army Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun as the adjutant general of the Florida National Guard. He most recently served as Air National Guard Assistant to the Commander of Pacific Air Force at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
On Sunday, the Times reported that the Guard — some 12,000 soldiers and airmen who deploy to combat zones and help at home in natural disasters — is facing ongoing investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct and coverups that date back a decade.
Some of the allegations are spelled out in an email to a state lawmaker written by Maj. Elliot Potter, a Tampa-based officer in the Florida National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps. Potter researched the allegations and forwarded them to his superiors. A copy of his email was obtained by the Times.
One man Potter accuses in a coverup is the guard’s current No. 2, Brig. Gen. Mike Canzoneri.
According to Potter, Canzoneri and another officer “have actively concealed evidence of sexual misconduct and other violence committed against soldiers of the Florida National Guard.”
Potter sent his email to state Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat. Book told the governor in a Jan. 16 letter that she was “inclined to believe” Potter. Investigations are underway at both the state and federal level, said Book spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren.
In a statement to the Times last month, outgoing commander Calhoun, 65, declined comment on specifics of any investigation, but said, “we are deeply troubled by these allegations.”
Among the people whose complaints fueled the investigations is Shira Callahan, a 46-year-old former civilian contractor for the guard who has filed sworn statements with the guard’s Inspector General’s Office. Callahan alleges a pattern of sexual misconduct and other wrongdoing by guard soldiers and leaders.
She said in an October 2017 sworn statement that Canzoneri, 56, came up to her during a break in a 2011 conference and “slowly ran his hand from one side of my bare shoulder to the other.”
She also said Canzoneri made sexual gestures to a female bartender during the same conference and ended a two-year affair he had with a female soldier. He then transferred the soldier after she refused to have sex with his friends.
What’s more, Callahan accused Canzoneri of covering up for another officer she named in her complaints — Lt. Col. Scott L. Taylor.
As a result of Callahan’s allegations, Taylor was found to have “created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment” for her, according to a September 2017 letter from Army Col. Leslie F. Caballero, inspector general with the Florida National Guard.
Caballero called it “conduct that brings discredit to the Florida National Guard.” Those findings, signed off on by Calhoun, also included recommendations for changes in policies. They include ensuring that everyone considered for key positions is thoroughly screened and that personnel pass along information to commanders about “problem soldiers.”
Six months after Caballero’s letter, on May 1, Taylor was named division chief at the Florida National Guard Joint Force Headquarters — the latest in a series of rank and job promotions despite complaints against him from Callahan and others.
In the first Times story, Canzoneri declined comment.
"I stand with the (new Adjutant General) and the Governor and their statements," he said in a text message Tuesday afternoon.
Taylor, 43, who vociferously denied allegations against him, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
DeSantis said that despite the investigations, the mission remains.
“When I was in the Navy, we dealt with problems,” he said “We still have the mission and the mission was always accomplished well. But when there are problems, you just have to address them.”
In his previous job, Eifert “advised on the proper use of all Air National Guard forces spread over half the globe in a command that supports for 45,000 airmen serving in places like Japan, Korea, Hawaii, Alaska in Guam,” DeSantis said.
The governor lauded Eifert’s previous experience, including stints as assistant adjutant general at the Florida Air National Guard, and as the Fighter Wing Commander of 125th Fighter Wing, Florida Air National Guard in Jacksonville.
Eifert is “committed to building and sustaining the finest state National Guard organization in the nation, trained and ready for state response or national call-up in the and the finest tradition of our Minutemen heritage,” DeSantis said.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.