WASHINGTON (AP) — The Army is stripping a brigadier general at the center of a sexual misconduct case by two grades for his retirement, in a rare move that will slash his benefits and force him to retire as a lieutenant colonel.
Army Secretary John McHugh announced the decision Friday, saying that Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair "displayed a pattern of inappropriate and at times illegal behavior both while serving as a brigadier general and a colonel."
The move comes three months after Sinclair pleaded guilty at a court martial to adultery and conducting inappropriate relationships with two other women. Over the past year, his case has been a central topic in Congress in the debate over whether the military has adequately handled sexual assault cases.
Sinclair had a three-year affair with a female captain who accused him of twice forcing her to perform oral sex on him. The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division was originally brought up on sexual assault charges punishable by life in prison. Sinclair was spared prison but fined $20,000 and issued a reprimand.
He was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on such charges. And, the Army said this is the first time in a decade that the service has reduced a retiring general officer by two ranks.
"Gen. Sinclair has consistently taken responsibility for his mistakes and agreed to a reduction in retirement benefits," his lawyer, Richard Scheff, said in an emailed statement. "He is a highly decorated war hero who made great sacrifices for his country, and it's right that he be permitted to retire honorably."
While retirement benefits are mandated by federal law, there is a requirement that an individual must have served satisfactorily in rank before receiving those benefits, McHugh said in a statement. McHugh determined that Sinclair's actions as both a one-star general and colonel provided enough evidence to reduce his retirement by two grades.
McHugh added that he was prevented by federal law from taking any further action against Sinclair, so he did what was "legally sustainable."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the reduction in retirement rank was the right thing to do.
But, she added, it "doesn't make the outcome more satisfactory. This case illustrated a military justice system in dire need of independence from the chain of command. It's not only the right thing to do for our men and women in uniform, but would also mitigate issues of unlawful command influence that we have seen in many trials over the last year."
The Army was unable Friday immediately to provide any estimates of how much retirement pay Sinclair might be losing as a result of McHugh's decision.
Sinclair was convicted at a court-martial in March 2014. But his sentence of a reprimand and fine triggered outrage in Congress, as members questioned whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice should be overhauled.
"This is a sexual predator," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told McHugh during a March hearing on Capitol Hill. "For a sexual predator to gain this rank and given a slap on the wrist suggests that the system doesn't work."
The case fueled anger about the increasing number of sexual assaults in the military, and raised persistent questions about whether victims feel free to report the assaults to their commanders.
The Pentagon narrowly beat back congressional efforts to strip commanders of the authority to prosecute cases, especially those related to sexual assault, and hand the job to seasoned military lawyers.