Gov. Phil Scott joined Maj. Gen. Steven Cray at a Dec. 6 press conference at Camp Johnson in Colchester to address allegations of sexual misconduct, preferential treatment by superiors, and alcohol abuse among male Vermont National Guard members highlighted in articles reported by VTDigger.
Scott and Cray said that allegations that were made and the subsequent investigations followed due process. They also outlined progress the Guard has made to combat a toxic culture, and cited increased transparency and work with the legislature on future action items to continue that progress.
However, talks of transparency were juxtaposed with Scott saying that there was no need for an independent investigation at this time.
The VTDigger series, titled “The Flying Fraternity,” is the product of interviews with 24 guard members — both current and former — as well as hundreds of documents that call into question how leadership has handled sexism and held its members accountable for poor behavior — especially senior officials.
The extensive list of incidents includes allegations that a former Guard chaplain coerced his assistant into providing sexual favors and hinging her job security based on the relationship. Another incident involved the base’s former wing commander who flew an F-16 jet to Washington for a rendezvous with a female Army colonel who worked at the Pentagon. Though internal investigations were conducted and both men no longer serve those roles, Chaplin Calvin Kemp and Col. Thomas Jackman were able to retire quietly with benefits.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Rector, who formerly served as the Burlington Wing’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), was involved with several investigations of sexual impropriety, including Kemp and Jackson’s cases. Unlike Kemp and Jackson, who received what was viewed as preferential treatment, Rector, a longtime-serving member of the Vermont National Guard, received three charges for alleged misconduct and was terminated in 2015. Although promised it initially, Rector was not granted federal whistleblower protection. He has been appealing his termination ever since.
Rector was also involved with the case regarding Lt. Col. Christopher Caputo, sending an email warning Caputo to not leave the base to visit unauthorized locations during a 2013 deployment in Djibouti. The email was reportedly met with hostility. Caputo was also associated with heavy drinking and belligerent behavior at what was referred to as the Afterburner’s Club, a bar on the base that is currently not in use. Caputo retired in 2017 but will be returning as an F-35 pilot when they arrive, Cray confirmed.
Chief Master Sgt. Mark Parish was accused of accosting a female guard member, having a relationship with another, and frequently making lewd comments about female members. Following a 2015 investigation, he, too, was afforded the opportunity to retire quietly.
These were some of the allegations reported, and 12 more members have since come forward to VTDigger to corroborate the stories and share others.
Cray and Scott Response
“There will be instances of poor judgements, mistakes made, and occasionally a bad apple, but individual situations are the exception,” Scott said in an opening statement at the Dec. 6 press conference. “They do not represent the Vermont National Guard as a whole. I believe they have followed their systems, and I believe they followed the systems of our federal partners as well for adjudicating difficult personnel matters. There is always an opportunity to do better.”
Upon approaching the podium, Cray said, “I vehemently disagree with and dispute the negative characterization of our members and our culture in recent media coverage.”
Cray noted he could not discuss specific details due to privacy protections, and that “the cases of individuals who were identified in the article were investigated, reviewed, and adjudicated. The individuals were all granted an appeal process and reviewed at multiple levels in and outside of the Vermont National Guard. In the end, the cases were handled correctly, professionally, and appropriate action was taken.”
Cray proceeded to outline a long list of ways the Vermont National Guard has progressed with improving its organizational culture since he was elected adjunct general in 2013, including their Equal Opportunity and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Programs.
Since 2013, the Vermont National Guard has reported sexually-based offenses annually to the state legislature. From 2013-2017, 33 reports of sexual assault were received, Cray said. Of the 33 reports, 14 identified Vermont National Guard service members as the alleged offender. Nineteen of the 33 cases were for incidents prior to 2013, “which suggest that the members now have greater confidence in the system to come forward, and that they will be treated fairly and given the advocacy they deserve,” he said.
Cray pressed that he did not agree with the tone of how the Guard was portrayed and provided the aforementioned sexual assault statistics as corrections to the VTDigger story, but when asked if the story was otherwise factual, Cray did not dispute any specific information. The Judge Advocate General and personnel will need to comb through each article, he said, and committed to the press that any facts that could be disputed would be shared.
The action steps outlined by Cray:
• Initiate a policy to increase transparency and disclosure of cases and the disposition of them.
• Shift the format of compliance-based sexual harassment training to increase direct leadership engagement on prevention networks.
• Work with the Vermont Legislature to identify how the Guard can monitor and track progress on these two action items as part of its annual reporting process.
Scott confirmed that he was made aware of some of the allegations in his first month in office. After investigating with his general counsel, the individual who submitted the letter, attorneys, and the JAG, Scott said he felt the process was handled properly.
However, Scott said that an independent investigation was not yet warranted, even though he stated that, “I wouldn’t have heard about some of it if Digger hadn’t written about it.”
“We are not at this point in time advocating for an independent review,” he added. “I’ve spoken to Gen. Cray. At his word, they’re doing everything they can, and I’m convinced that all the procedures and protocols were adhered to.”
Cray confirmed that he authorized that VTDigger be removed from the Guard press list in response to a VTDigger reporter reaching out to a sexual assault survivor. He said he did not feel it was a form a retaliation or punishment.
“I wanted to send a message that said, ‘I did not agree with tactic of having someone call a survivor and do harm to that individual,’” Cray said.
“I didn’t agree with the decision,” Scott said. “Since I came into office, there’s been one complaint about the guard. There have been none others since then. If there was anyone who has a complaint who would like to register that and doesn’t feel that they can through the Guard, they are welcome to contact our office, and we will follow through.” The number he gave is 802-828-3333.
Cray, who leads approximately 2,500 men and women in the Vermont Army National Guard and 1,000 members in the Vermont Air National Guard, announced last week that he will retire in March after serving in the Guard for nearly 34 years. He will not be seeking a fourth term as adjunct general and said that it was not in reaction to recent events.
After the press conference, Anne Galloway, founder and editor of VTDigger and executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust said, “We were very disappointed that Gen. Cray was unable to sit down with us because we want to be holistic in our reporting, and we want to show all sides of the story.”
Though heartened by some of what Cray and Scott said regarding transparency and working with the legislature, Galloway said the investigating must go on.
“Shining the light of day on the inside of an institution can result in a better environment,” she said. “I hope the legislature is able to help them move forward on that because it’s better for everyone.”