Army sexual assault case refuels Congress debate

House lawmakers made clear Tuesday that although the Senate recently voted to leave the handling of sexual assault cases in commanders’ hands, the issue is far from resolved.  

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, several lawmakers lambasted the outcome of a recent military sexual assault case where a high ranking Army officer who pled guilty to several acts of sexual misconduct was fined $24,100 but not given jail time or a reduction in rank. 

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Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair pled guilty last week to maltreatment of a subordinate, soliciting illicit photos from junior female officers, possessing pornography, misuing a credit card, and using derogatory language. 

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) described a farewell party for then-Col. Jeffrey Sinclair, where soldiers in his unit put on a skit where one soldier pretended to be a female captain who asked another soldier portraying Sinclair if he wanted oral sex. 

“From this story, and from the charges that General Sinclair had admitted to, there can be no doubt that General Sinclair abused and debased his authority in a reprehensible way, using it to perpetuate a toxic military culture which accepted even criminal behavior as the norm,” she said.

“I'm just not sure that you have the tools to really make change,” Rep. Tsongas said. “This decision was so troubling on so many fronts.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) — who backed leaving the issue in commanders’ hands — said the Sinclair’s case worried her. 

Army Secretary John McHugh, who has the final decision over whether Sinclair would be demoted with reduced retirement pay, declined to comment on the case, saying the case was not yet closed. 

“The accused can make pleas for clemency, et cetera, et cetera. So we have a ways to go,” McHugh said at the hearing. “I have to make the final certifications as to his rank and conditions of retirement, and that's not yet reached my desk.” 

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, who testified along with McHugh, said he was meeting regularly with commanders regarding sexual assault. 

“It's now getting it down to the junior level and making sure that they understand that we are serious about this,” he said.

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