WASHINGTON — The number of complaints filed against senior military and defense officials has increased over the past several years, but more cases are being rejected as not credible and fewer officers are being found guilty of misconduct, according to data from Defense Department investigators.
Overall, there were 803 complaints filed in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, compared to 787 the previous year. But just 144 were deemed credible and investigated by the IG, and 49 senior officials were eventually found guilty of misconduct. Allegations against the officials often involve ethical misconduct — such as having an inappropriate relationship — but they also include violating travel rules, wrongly accepting gifts, sending subordinates on personal errands or treating workers badly.
The data was released Wednesday during a House Armed Services personnel subcommittee hearing. Glenn Fine, who is serving as the Pentagon’s inspector general, said the decline in the number of cases being investigated is due to a more thorough screening process of the complaints that come in. As a result, he said, about one-third of the cases that are investigated are ultimately substantiated. That rate is a bit lower than last year, but much higher than previous years. The rate in 2008 was just 14 percent.
Senior military leaders also told the panel that they are seeing far more so-called whistleblower complaints that can trigger investigations and stall careers, but only a tiny fraction of the alleged offenders are found guilty.
Fine told the House panel that just two whistleblower cases charging a senior official with retribution were substantiated in the 2017 fiscal year, compared to three in each of the two previous years. Whistleblower cases usually allege that an officer or superior has retaliated against a lower ranking service member or worker for making some type of complaint.
According to Fine, the number of retribution complaints filed against senior officials increased from 145 to 165 over the past five years. But, more broadly, complaints against all department individuals jumped by nearly 80 percent over that same time period.
“Whistleblower reprisal has skyrocketed because of the misuse and misapplication of whistleblower reprisal against senior officials. It is off the charts,” Lt. Gen. David Quantock, the Army’s inspector general, told the committee, noting that just 4 percent of the Army cases are substantiated. He said the complaints are often made by a soldier or civilian after they have been held accountable for misconduct or poor performance.
“The resulting claim of reprisal creates challenges for senior commanders who hold people accountable, and then are faced with an inspector general whistleblower reprisal investigation,” he said.
Fine said that he is hiring a fulltime whistleblower ombudsman to help make sure troops and workers understand their rights and responsibilities and to help prevent reprisals.
Lawmakers raised concerns about whether military investigators can effectively cast judgment on officers in their own service, and they questioned whether civilians should do those jobs. They also asked if offenders are treated equally across the services — or if officers might be disciplined differently for the same offense depending on what service they belong to.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said she’s concerned that lower-ranking service members are treated more harshly for violations than senior officers are.
“There is a phrase in the military that goes like this, ‘Different spanks for different ranks,'” she said. “Many senior leaders who should be the essential core of the chain of command are not being held to the same standard as the rank and file. This corrupts fairness, justice and morale.”
Fine said only a small minority of senior leaders are guilty of misconduct. He added that the IG’s office is looking into ways to help standardize investigations and also track and record cases in similar ways.
The inspectors general also told the committee that they are understaffed, have large backlogs, and it can often 200-400 days to investigate and complete a case.