Board Heard of Abuse 20 Years Ago, but Did Little
DENVER, June 15 (AP) The board overseeing the Air Force Academy heard reports of sexual assaults and misconduct 20 years ago, but its yearly reports remained positive, a review of 25 years of board records has found.
The review, by The Denver Post [see story below], found that the 15-member Board of Visitors, charged with presiding over morale and discipline at the academy, did not pursue reports of sexual assaults and asked few questions.
The review included transcripts of the meetings and conversations with some of the members, who are appointed by the president and included members of Congress, Fortune 500 executives and other politically connected leaders.
The military has begun three investigations of reports of 57 sexual assaults at the academy since 1993. A separate independent investigation is to begin this month.
"These are people who espouse the doctrines of the Constitution, who have wives, sisters, daughters, and hear of abuse toward women over and over and do nothing," said Doris Besikof, a lawyer who contacted the board about a sexual abuse claim nearly a decade ago.
The review determined that the board heard its first report of sexual assaults in 1983 and that other reports of misconduct surfaced later.
Before this year, however, the board's annual reports about the academy's operations were positive. They never mentioned sexual misconduct or called for any reviews of procedures, records show.
"Perhaps I should have asked tougher questions, but you don't want to create an adversarial relationship where you're grilling the staff," said Harry Pearce, a former vice chairman of General Motors, who retired as board chairman in April. "Rest assured, had we known this, all hell would have broken loose."
But Lt. Gen. Bradley Hosmer, the acting superintendent from 1991 to 1994, disagreed with Mr. Pearce's assessment of the board.
"I would have been more satisfied if they disagreed with me more," said General Bradley, who is retired.
Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who has been a board member since 1987, said the board might have been able to limit some of the damage to the academy if it had acted on the assault reports.
Mr. Hefley said board members did not follow up on what academy officials said they would do.
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AFA board ignored assaults
Often-absent legislators, execs praised academy amid sex charges
By Elizabeth Aguilera David Migoya and Allison Sherry
Denver Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 15, 2003 - For more than two decades, an Air Force Academy review board - whose ranks included members of Congress, friends of presidents, Fortune 500 executives and the politically connected - failed to aggressively pursue sexual misconduct at the academy.
Allegations that female cadets were being raped at the Colorado Springs campus were first brought to board members in 1983, The Denver Post has found, and other misconduct problems repeatedly surfaced in the years to follow.
The 15-member board charged with overseeing morale and discipline at the military academy had several more opportunities to demand investigations or recommend changes to the way sexual assault and harassment problems were dealt with there, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of documents.
The group, known as the academy's Board of Visitors, never used that authority.
Instead, members focused on routine business such as dormitory renovations, cadet pay raises, student grades and the school's honor code - even though new scandals were reported in the media.
Board members simply trusted that the academy's solutions were sufficient, many said.
Before this year, the board's annual reports and letters to U.S. presidents were cheery. They never mentioned problems of sexual misconduct, nor called for any reviews of procedures at the academy, records show.
Four separate military and congressional investigations have been launched since March after more than 60 women came forward with stories of being raped or sexually assaulted at the academy. Many said they were punished or shunned after reporting the assaults to commanders.
Since the new allegations of widespread sexual assaults at the academy became public, several longtime board members who had been in a position to take action, including U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., are now vocal in their criticisms.
The Post reviewed 25 years' worth of meeting minutes and reports by the Board of Visitors obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper also interviewed more than two dozen former and current board members who have been appointed since 1977, as well as former cadets and staff.
Among the newspaper's findings:
Academy brass didn't always tell the board the true extent of sexual misconduct at the school, records show. On other occasions, the board simply didn't ask any questions, even after well-publicized incidents.
Board members say they thought they had little authority to exercise aggressive oversight of the school. One former academy leader concedes the panel should have asked tougher questions, and a board member said some in the group didn't want to be critical.
Board members' attendance at annual meetings has been sporadic, normally dropping to fewer than half the board's number. Some members never attended.
"These are people who espouse the doctrines of the Constitution, who have wives, sisters, daughters, and hear of abuse toward women over and over and do nothing," said Doris Besikof, an attorney who represented a female cadet and contacted the board about the victim's sexual abuse nearly a decade ago.
"It makes me indignant."
The Board of Visitors is composed of the nation's elite, people who can get things done.
The board was established in 1956. The president appoints six members, each to a three-year term; the other nine are members of Congress named yearly, three of them by the vice president.
The panel has broad discretion under its charter. The group is required to visit the academy annually, and its charter says the board must "inquire into the morale, discipline, curriculum, instruction, physical equipment, fiscal affairs, academic methods, and other matters relating to the academy which the board decides to consider."
As a group, the board submits a written report of its actions, views and recommendations about conditions at the school to the president of the United States and the Air Force secretary. The White House could not confirm for The Post whether the president personally reads those reports.
As individuals, members have access to lobby Congress and, as has happened recently, can call for investigations.
In the past quarter century, the board has spent more time advocating the academy's reputation, emphasizing the good things.
That's clear in its written reports, where the board repeatedly wrote the president that the academy was healthy, enriching and "an exemplary atmosphere for addressing gender-related issues."
"I would have been more satisfied if they disagreed with me more," said retired Lt. Gen. Bradley Hosmer, academy superintendent from 1991-94.
Board members said, in retrospect, there were plenty of reasons why they missed opportunities to set off alarms.
Board members believed academy leaders' candor, trusted their solutions, didn't want to antagonize generals with tough questions, were too busy to follow up, or just didn't have enough time during their visits, they said.
Some board members said at times they did ask academy leaders cursory questions about women at the academy, but those inquiries are not reflected in the board's official records.
Others said they simply didn't think or know the problems were this serious.
"We were never told anything," said Harry Pearce, former vice chairman of General Motors Corp. who retired as board chairman in April. "Perhaps I should have asked tougher questions, but you don't want to create an adversarial relationship where you're grilling the staff.
"Rest assured," Pearce added, "had we known this, all hell would have broken loose."
Now, at least one board member wonders whether years of alleged sexual misconduct could have been averted if the board had only reacted to what it was told.
"If we could have headed this off and saved any of this embarrassment, we should have done it," said Hefley, a board member since 1987. "We didn't follow up on what (academy officials) said they'd do."
'83: Legislator hears charge, but follow-up doesn't occur
"What are you going to do about the rapes?"
The words blurted by the female cadet stopped board member Beverly Byron, then a Maryland congresswoman. It was 1983 – just three years after the first women were graduated from the Air Force Academy.
"I beg your pardon?" Byron said she stammered. It was the first Byron had heard that sexual misconduct was a problem in the three years she had served on the board.
The cadet was among a group of 20 female academy students with whom Byron met. The cadets brought up nine separate incidents, Byron said.
"I was quite shocked," she told The Post.
Until then, board members said they believed gender problems would disappear once women were members of every academy class, meeting minutes show.
Byron said she told academy officials about the cadets' allegations, as well as the 10 other board members who were at the meeting that year. Byron said she recently provided the same details to Tillie Fowler, the former Florida congresswoman who's leading a seven-member independent review panel created by Congress to investigate sexual assaults at the academy.
"I watched it very carefully the next six to eight months," Byron said. "I was comfortable it was under control."
One of the board members at the meeting was Sheila Widnall, who recalled the discussion.
"I was frustrated that the honor code didn't cover (rape) incidents," Widnall said recently. "That sends a bad message to cadets."
But Widnall, like Byron, didn't follow up.
"I wasn't paying a lot of attention to what would happen ... because it was my last year on the board," she said. "I was not going to be in a position to track the issue."
Ten years later, Widnall became Air Force secretary.
Still, Byron said the board should have been told about the assaults by generals instead of cadets. A committee was formed at the academy to look into the incidents, she said.
Board minutes do not reflect Byron's disclosure to the board, any discussion about the incidents, the creation of the committee, or that it ever presented its findings to the board. Byron said she doesn't remember hearing from the committee after it was created.
She did not attend another board meeting for two years.
Another board member at the time, Lynda Hare Scribante, said she does not remember discussions of sexual misconduct at all.
"They were so thrilled to be there, and they felt they were getting little or no harassment," Scribante said of her discussions with female cadets.
Through the years, the board was little more than a pipeline to Washington money, a group that gave accolades rather than criticism, records show and board members said.
"Mainly they want you to be a cheerleader for the school rather than have an accountability role," Hefley said.
Examples of how the board heard of problems but only showered praise in correspondence to the White House occurred in 1985 and 1986. The board was told how the academy was addressing cadet drinking and fraternization - when upperclassmen improperly socialize with freshmen, records show. Alcohol was to blame for most cadet violations, they were told.
Alcohol has been linked to 40 percent of 56 sexual misconduct cases academy officials are currently investigating.
In 1986, academy leaders told the board they had solved the problem. Senior cadets were showing the freshmen women "ways for them to avoid a compromising situation," meeting minutes show.
But the problems weren't highlighted in the report to President Reagan that year. The academy was "in excellent shape," the board proclaimed.
1992: Drinking, harassment join neglected problems
Concerns about cadet drinking wouldn't come to the board again until 1992 - when sexual harassment also came up. In the years between, the board never asked whether the previous problems had been solved, records show.
"I wish that when we got that information we had taken it seriously enough, to probe more deeply into whether the appropriate actions really were taken," said Hefley, who was appointed to the board in 1987.
The extent of harassment and abuse at the academy remained largely unrecognized until late 1990, when female Navy officers were forced through a groping gantlet of their male colleagues at a Las Vegas convention. The Tailhook gathering spotlighted sexual misconduct in the military and sparked the Air Force Academy to look at how its own men and women were getting along.
Academy officials told the board in 1991 that male cadets had problems recognizing sexual harassment, and their attitudes toward women deteriorated as they moved toward graduation. They could physically touch each other during training or even horseplay, but the "ability to distinguish sexual harassment from pranks is lost," board minutes show.
Yet in its 1991 report to President George Bush, the board said women were doing well at the academy.
"Women are at a more advanced stage of integration at the Air Force Academy when compared to West Point or Annapolis," board records show. "The academy is maintaining its high standards."
By the next board meeting in July 1992, the scope of the academy's real problems began to emerge.
Academy leaders had investigated 18 cases of sexual harassment from 1988 to 1992, media reports show. Superintendent Hosmer briefed the board about seven of them that had occurred since 1990.
One of the cases involved six cadets who were dismissed after five of them hid in a fellow cadet's dorm room and watched as the sixth had sex with a female cadet, media reports show.
In another, dozens of male cadets on the academy's elite Wings of Blue parachute team were punished for taunting five female team members. They told off-color jokes, said women "didn't belong," and sang demeaning songs to them. Four members were tossed from the team, and its commander was suspended.
Hosmer said the incidents were isolated, "petty things that happen now and again," meeting minutes show. "The real matter was improper treatment of fellow professionals."
Board member Phyllis Kaminsky said "the murmurings" of harassment problems caused the board to give her, the only woman on the panel, "the special responsibility to go out of my way to meet with female cadets."
The incidents the cadets told her about "were just harassment, minor things women were uncomfortable about," Kaminsky said. She spoke to Hosmer after those discussions, she said, but not the board because its members had already gone home.
"The leadership (at the academy) wasn't trying to avoid it," she said. "They just didn't know how to deal with it."
She said she didn't pursue the matter after she met privately with academy leaders.
"They said they'd deal with it, and it was not something that we'd need in an official report," said Kaminsky, a one-time spokeswoman for the National Security Council at the White House.
"If someone had come to me with something as serious as rape, it would have been a different story."
Three months after Kaminsky's visit with the female cadets, in October 1992, an academy survey revealed that 80 percent of them said they were subjected to sexist or demeaning remarks every day.
"Apparently they let it ride, waiting for the next explosion," Kaminsky said.
That came on Valentine's Day 1993.
A female cadet reported to commanders that she was gang-raped on the campus by up to five males in civilian clothes. The case remains unsolved.
During the inquiry, Hosmer said he met with about 460 female cadets. He closed the door, removed his epaulets, then asked how many were victims of sexual abuse or harassment - 205 raised their hands.
"I found the numbers astounding," Hosmer told The Post. "This was the beginning point of me understanding what the facts were."
In a separate study the board didn't see, the academy's Committee on Respect and Dignity found "disturbing numbers" of female cadets who said they were assaulted, fondled, harassed or discriminated against.
Shortly thereafter, Hosmer told board members at the October 1993 meeting that he had opened 15 separate investigations into sexual assault or misconduct. Seven cases resulted in discipline, including two courts-martial ended with prison terms.
Three board members at the same meeting said they were told privately by a group of students that "female cadets feel oppressed," and that even faculty were "voicing their opinion that women didn't belong" there, meeting minutes show.
Sexual misconduct at the academy was the result of a "long-standing, unhealthy human relations environment," Hosmer told the board.
"The academy had a fairly good approach" to addressing gender and minority issues "until about 1985, when it declared victory on these problems," he told them. Then the academy "shifted its attention to other things."
Hosmer told the board he had created the Center for Character Development to train cadets about proper human relations and ethical decision-making, specialized instruction into the cadet curriculum, and established victims' hotlines.
Hefley, who was at the academy for the 1993 meeting, said he doesn't remember Hosmer's revelations.
"I think I'd have had a very strong reaction if I knew that," said Hefley, who recently has called for investigations into the academy's mishandling of sexual misconduct cases. "I guess the board maybe presumed that proper action was being taken."
That year, longtime board chairman Sen. Barry Goldwater wrote President Clinton that the academy was "a healthy institution."
Hosmer left the academy in June 1994 and handed off the work he started to his replacement, Lt. Gen. Paul Stein.
What followed was a succession of board meetings in which school officials offered scant information to the board about sexual misconduct problems.
1994: All board members get letter about abuse case
One event that occurred outside of the boardroom, however, should have stood out.
All 15 board members were sent a letter in December 1994 about the abuse and possible rape that sophomore cadet Elizabeth Saum suffered during a summer training session.
The training program - Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape - began in 1993 at the academy and included simulated sexual attacks similar to those Persian Gulf War prisoners had experienced.
The letter sent by her attorney detailed how Saum was slapped, manhandled and was the target of a mock rape by several upperclassmen trainers that spun out of control, court records show. Saum eventually left the academy.
Saum's attorney, Besikof, said she wrote board members, hoping they would help.
"It was very discouraging to bring facts to the attention of people of authority and have them treat it with no more seriousness ... than they would with any routine matter," she said. "It was so bizarre. It seems like someone would have taken notice."
They didn't, not even at the next meeting in July 1995.
Former senator and board member J. James Exon, a Nebraska Democrat, was sent the Saum letter, but says he doesn't remember seeing it. Such an important case shouldn't have been overlooked, he said.
"It's strange to me that we didn't talk about it, but we didn't," Exon told The Post.
At about the same time, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report that said 78 percent of academy cadets experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Before Saum filed a federal lawsuit in Denver in 1996 against Air Force and academy officials, the military scrapped the rape scenarios from the training program. Her case was eventually settled under undisclosed terms with the Air Force.
1998: President Clinton told that AFA is 'exemplary'
In 1998, board chairman Gen. Brent Scowcroft wrote then-President Clinton that the academy "demonstrates an exemplary atmosphere for addressing gender-related issues."
That's because Superintendent Lt. Gen. Tad Oelstrom told the board it did.
"I only related to them what I thought, what I sensed, what I saw," said Oelstrom, now a program director at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "I gave the board positive vibes because that is what I thought."
Former board member David Ibarra, a Salt Lake City businessman, said it's disconcerting that academy leaders may not have been totally candid.
The board discussed cadet drug abuse, cheating, even cadet hazing, Ibarra said, but never sexual misconduct.
"As the oversight body, we could have brought pressure to ensure it was not swept under the rug, which apparently it was," Ibarra said, noting that questions couldn't be asked if the board wasn't told about problems.
"You'd think a rape allegation would warrant a mention."
U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., a board member since 1999, said he asked academy officials privately in June 2000 about a sexually offensive skit cadets performed at an academy party. The performance was loosely based on a scene from a Monty Python movie, and two officers preapproved it.
At the board's June 2002 meeting, Allard inquired about sexual harassment training, partly because a cadet sodomized a 13-year-old girl during a cheerleader camp at the academy. Allard also received telephone calls from former and current female cadets who said they were victims assaults at the school.
Allard characterized academy officials as being uneasy with his questions and was told, "We're dealing with that."
Board members rarely went as far as Allard; many never bothered to show up.
On average, fewer than half the board attended meetings between 1978 and 2002, records show.
"Some of these congressional people I've never seen," said Hefley, who has missed seven of 17 meetings.
One of them, Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., has been a vice presidential appointee to the board since 1992, and briefly from 1978-80. He hasn't attended a single meeting, records show.
His spokesman, Andy Davis, said Hollings' schedule has been too full for him to make meetings during his 14-year tenure.
Former Sen. Exon lashed out at absentee members at the 2000 board meeting, saying only the "fully committed" should accept the appointment. He'd made all four meetings as a presidential appointee from 1998-2000, after he left the Senate.
While a senator, however, Exon was appointed to the board for nine years and missed every meeting, records show.
Said Hollings spokesman Davis: "You can't necessarily depend on a board to get this kind of work done."
Former board chairman Pearce disagrees.
"We need to find people who have a genuine interest in the institution, people who really care about the Air Force," the 1964 academy graduate said. "I fear that too often congressional members of the board are given seats as an honorary assignment."
Allard agreed the board needed fewer elected officials: "We'd be much better off to get citizens."
Others say the board should meet more than twice a year. The Naval Academy board meets four times each year.
"You learn where the toilet is, and then you have to go home," said board member John Kidde, a vice president of Ventura Foods in California and former roommate of President George W. Bush.
Hefley said drastic changes are needed to the board's charter, such as stricter authority over academy leaders and the flexibility to mandate policy changes.
"I'm not window dressing," Hefley said, promising to resign from the board if its charter isn't strengthened.
In this year's board letter to President Bush, Pearce called for a group of national experts to make annual reviews of the academy's success in preventing sexual assault and harassment.
Academy brass, Pearce wrote Bush in April, need to make "candid and complete disclosure" to the board the moment problems surface - even if it hurts.
"I want them to bare their souls," Kidde said. "It's not just the academy's problem, it's my problem. And I don't like having problems in my life."
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