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Project on Government Oversight

“Stay in Your F---ing Lane”

Lawmakers Demand Consequences After Tough-Talking General is Found to Have Obstructed Official Investigation—Once Again

Gen. Patton

Major General Gary S. Patton

A controversial top Army officer, Major General Gary S. Patton, has just been cited for the second time in less than a year for obstructing an official probe into horrific conditions at a U.S.-funded hospital in Afghanistan.

The Project On Government Oversight obtained a redacted copy of the latest 19-page investigative report on Patton, as well as the July 2014 letter finding against him. Neither has been made public so far.

In the two cases against Patton, the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (DoD IG) found that he unlawfully tried to prevent subordinates from speaking to its inspectors on topics ranging from widespread patient neglect to alleged fraud at Dawood National Military Hospital in Kabul, which has received more than $200 million in U.S. taxpayer support.

Last December, after results of the first finding of obstruction against him were made public, Patton announced he was stepping down as the director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) and would retire. The announcement came after Members of Congress and others, including POGO, argued that he should not hold such a sensitive post given his misconduct. Another probe into a second incident of alleged obstruction was still open, however, and he was not free leave to military. Now that the investigation is complete, Patton’s retirement appears imminent.

In the July 2014 letter addressed to the complainant, Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Young, the IG substantiated a second claim of illegal conduct by Patton. Young’s accusation was earlier set forth in a November 2013 letter from POGO to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel highlighting the charge that Patton had essentially ordered Young to stop talking to DoD IG inspectors looking into wrongdoing at the troubled Afghan medical facility.

Among the IG report’s conclusions is a formal recommendation that “the Secretary of the Army take appropriate corrective action against MG Patton.”

In line with policy, the IG offered no comment on the matter. Army Spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Alayne Conway said: “The report of investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General regarding Maj. Gen. Patton has been provided to the Army. It is currently under review.” Patton did not respond to requests for comment.

In response to the second and most recent adverse finding against Patton, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told POGO they are demanding accountability for the offending officer. Neither Senator offered a specific recommendation, but the Army could impose a reduction in rank and consequent reduction of Patton’s military pension, currently estimated in the range of $145,000 annually.

The IG’s finding follows another from late last August when it concluded that Patton, along with his superior in Afghanistan Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, had on a separate occasions both tried to stop their subordinates from contacting DoD IG investigators about patient neglect and alleged fraud at Dawood. The Afghan government’s largest military health care facility, Dawood was also spotlighted in 2012 congressional hearings that detailed alleged “Auschwitz-type” conditions, including patients starving, a lack of anesthesia for operations, maggots crawling from wounds, feces on the floor, and rampant corruption.

Caldwell, who headed a NATO training mission tasked in part with assistance to the hospital, denied obstructing the Pentagon’s probe. But the IG rejected his claim. Caldwell was nevertheless allowed to retire without facing disciplinary consequences. Patton, named in the same adverse finding, also denied any impropriety. As Patton told a congressional hearing, “I never directed subordinates, nor received orders from superiors, that a request for a DoD IG visit be either delayed, impeded, or avoided for any reasons, to include political reasons.” Whistleblower testimony at another hearing contradicted that, stating that Patton and other senior officers covered up abuses at the hospital to preserve President Barack Obama’s Afghan strategy in the run-up to the 2012 election.

After his controversial tour in Afghanistan, Patton won appointment to the highly visible post of director of SAPRO, the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention unit in charge of stopping a crime that largely depends on whistleblower reports, which increased by 50 percent in 2013.

In December 2013, after just 18 months on the job, Patton unexpectedly stepped down from his position as SAPRO director, and announced his plan to retire. Despite the outstanding question surrounding his actions at Dawood, Hagel praised the general, saying Patton “has a history of tackling tough assignments and I want to thank him for the transparency, energy, persistence and strong leadership” he showed at SAPRO. Neither Hagel nor the Secretary of the Army cited the official finding that preceded Patton’s resignation from SAPRO. A spokesperson for Patton insisted that his “personal decision” to leave both SAPRO and the military had been made months earlier and was unrelated to the finding of official misconduct.

“It is appalling that a General entrusted with leading the very office responsible for overseeing the Pentagon’s sexual assault response (SAPRO), which by definition should seek to protect whistleblowers, instead has now twice been found responsible for illegally restricting those under his command from talking to independent investigators,” Gillibrand, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told POGO. In response to the military’s sexual assault crisis, she proposed legislation that would have transferred the decision to prosecute uniformed offenders from commanders to lawyers outside the chain of command. The measure failed to overcome Pentagon opposition and a Senate filibuster earlier this year.

“When General Patton stepped down [from SAPRO], there were serious questions involving his conduct and I was concerned that his decision was more about avoiding getting to the bottom of what happened,” the Senator added. “We now know there’s not one but two times an Inspector General has recommended that [the Army] take action against General Patton,” Gillibrand said. “It sends an awful and alarming message when a top General involved in suppressing the facts is allowed to resign without any accountability. It appears the chain of command is choosing to protect its own rather than demand accountability. The Secretary of the Army should explain his lack of action and why General Patton is being let off the hook.”

“Based on the evidence to date, those involved should be held accountable,” said Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in response to the latest finding against Patton. In a strongly-worded letter to the Secretary of Defense after the 2013 substantiation against Patton (and Caldwell), Grassley urged that the two senior officers be held “accountable for breaking the law. Attempting to ‘restrict’ the free flow of information to the Inspector General [of the Pentagon]…must never be tolerated. Whistleblowers are a key asset in the war on fraud, theft, and waste. If senior officers are allowed to restrict and control whistleblower reports, then that weapon will be seriously degraded. I guarantee it.”

At a time when the U.S. military continues to weather an epidemic of charges against high-ranking officers, the Army has insisted it will protect whistleblowers, particularly when they choose lawful channels to report violations. Since that is precisely what appears to have happened in both Patton cases, it will now be up to Hagel and the Secretary of the Army to determine what penalty if any the decorated two-star faces as he prepares join civilian life after more than three decades in uniform.

According to the IG’s July 2014 Report of Investigation, Patton twice told a subordinate to “stay in your (f---ing) lane”—a command that effectively stopped Young from communicating with a DoD IG inspection team touring the Dawood hospital in search of evidence. The report says its conclusions are based on interviews with Patton, the complainant (Young), and 22 witnesses, as well as reports, memoranda, and testimony from eight officials interviewed during two previous investigations involving the Dawood Hospital.

In the most recent complaint against Patton, Young repeated what he told POGO last year—that, as part of a Pentagon tour of the mismanaged hospital, he had been attempting to show inspectors an Afghan patient whose broken leg bones were improperly aligned after a faulty surgery.

The report also says Patton told Young, “if you don’t know about bones, don’t talk about bones,” referring to Young’s attempt to highlight the botched leg operation.

Young, a highly trained nurse, was the member of the U.S. command most informed about patient care at the site, the report says. This was why the command had selected him to lead that portion of the inspection tour, it adds.

After Patton’s confrontation with Young, the junior officer fell silent and withdrew. He later told POGO that he understood Patton’s order as “intimidation” and a directive to stop giving information to Pentagon inspectors that could reflect negatively on the command, of which Patton was a leader. The report found that as a “junior officer…being given an order by a two-star general…[he] would…obey a very senior officer’s order by ceasing all communication.” This, the report found, was an unlawful restriction that denied Pentagon inspectors “the full benefit of the additional information about patient care” from the person most knowledgeable on the subject.

Colonel Mark Fassl, the NATO mission’s Inspector General and an active duty officer stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, told POGO last year that Patton stepped into a hallway during the Dawood hospital tour and asked him, “Do you hear what he [Young] is saying? We need to stop him [Young] talking to the inspector general.” Fassl, who initiated one of the earlier complaints of obstruction against Patton and Caldwell, was vindicated in the IG finding against the pair last August.

Without identifying Fassl by name, the report says “several other witnesses” observed the interaction between Patton and Young.

Yet Patton denied all wrongdoing in the latest probe, just as he had when confronted with the similar charge last year.

In the latest probe, the report says Patton’s attorney argued that the DoD IG was simply wrong in its interpretation of the statute and his legal liability for alleged obstruction. Patton personally told the DoD IG that he “did not intend to restrict complainant’s access” to the Pentagon inspection team, the report says.

But the agency found otherwise.

“After carefully considering” Patton’s justifications, the report concludes that his “restrictive remarks violated Title 10, United States Code, Section 1034 (10 U.S.C. 1034), ‘Protected communication; prohibition of retaliatory personnel actions’ and DoD Directive 7050.06, ‘Military Whistle Blower Protection.’” For Patton, it was the second time around.

Image from the Dept. of Defense.

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