By DONNA CASSATA
Senators demanded answers on Tuesday from senior military leaders on why an Air Force commander dismissed charges against a lieutenant colonel after he was convicted of sexual assault.
"Do you really think that after a jury has found someone guilty, and dismissed someone from the military for sexual assault, that one person, over the advice of their legal counselor, should be able to say, 'Never mind'?" Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the top officer at U.S. Central Command, at a Senate hearing.
Mattis explained that commanders, including female commanders, have the authority to act for a reason. "And I would just tell you that I would look beyond one case," he said.
McCaskill sent a letter to Air Force officials seeking an explanation while Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking him to review the case.
The Air Force Times reported last month that Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, had been convicted on Nov. 2 on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident had involved a civilian employee.
Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service. But Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the commander of 3rd Air Force, later dismissed the charges. The Air Force Times reported that Franklin had concluded that the evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
"This is a travesty of justice," Boxer and Shaheen wrote. "At a time when the military has unequivocally stated that there is zero tolerance for sexual assault, this is not the message it should be sending to our service men and women, and to our nation."
They asked Hagel for information on what was the basis for Franklin's decision and pressed him to act immediately to restrict such authority to dismiss military court decisions unilaterally.
McCaskill wrote Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, that Franklin's decision "show ignorance, at best, and malfeasance, at worst."
"I strongly urge you to undertake an immediate review of his conduct and consider removing him from his leadership position," the senator wrote.
She pointed out that as the Air Force and "other military organizations are redoubling efforts to erase a culture that has often turned a blind eye on sexual assault, Lt. Gen. Franklin's conduct undermines this important shift."
In January, Welsh likened sexual assault in the Air Force's ranks to a cancer and vowed to tackle the problem by screening personnel more carefully and putting an end to bad behaviors like binge drinking that can lead to misconduct.
Welsh told a House oversight committee that the service recorded a disturbing number of reports of sexual assault last year even as it worked to curb misconduct in the wake of a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas. Dozens of young female recruits and airmen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio were victimized by their instructors who sexually harassed, improperly touched or raped them.
Most difficult, Welsh said, is transforming a culture in which victims are often reluctant to report what happened because of guilt, shame or fear they won't be believed.