Pentagon personnel chief investigated for 'tyrannical' leadership

Complaints allege Clifford Stanley is vindictive, wasteful, and unfit for service.

The Pentagon inspector general is investigating Clifford Stanley, the official charged with overseeing the Defense Department's massive personnel bureaucracy, after a spate of highly detailed allegations of gross mismanagement and abuse of power. He's accused of firing respected senior staff, neglecting programs for wounded troops, and using limited funds on expensive consultants and a lavish new conference room.

Senior civilian and military officials filed at least four separate complaints with the IG's office and to Capitol Hill since May, alleging that Stanley, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, has hurt the military's ability to deliver crucial services to troops and their families. Stanley, a retired two-star Marine Corps general, has been on the job since February 2010.

Stanley did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment for this article. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said "the department is aware of the allegations and takes them seriously." She added, "As a matter of policy, the DOD IG does not confirm or deny the existence of, or comment upon investigations or investigative issues."

In the complaints, four of which were obtained by National Journal, Stanley is portrayed as vindictive, wasteful, and unfit for service. The officials charge in their complaints that he has largely ignored pervasive problems such as sexual assault and the rising rates of suicides among military personnel. Other senior officials outside Stanley's office have stepped in to handle some of his core responsibilities, according to a July 11 complaint filed by unidentified senior civilians and military personnel.

"He has created a dysfunctional command marked by fear and mistrust through a capricious, tyrannical and arbitrary leadership," the complaint states. "Waste, fraud and abuse of power are rampant. Even if he were competent, his destructive leadership would assure 'P&R' (personnel and readiness) mission failure."

The investigation into Stanley, one of the Pentagon's most senior and powerful appointees, could pose the first significant personnel challenge for new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. His predecessor Robert Gates didn't hesitate to fire senior officials for poor performance, at one point even flying to Afghanistan to sack one four-star general commander.

While the inspector general's decision to launch an investigation does not confirm any wrongdoing on Stanley's part, the complaints from these whistle-blowers have made their way around the Pentagon. Moreover, the unusual nature of the complaints -- and the high stakes involved -- have not been lost on the House Armed Services Committee, which received the July 11 document. A committee staffer said the letter marked the first time in anyone's memory the panel received a complaint from such a senior level about an under secretary. The staffer said the committee will defer to the inspector general until the work is done.

Inspector general complaints lodged against government officials are not uncommon. But what makes the case against Stanley different from most is the sheer number of the complaints targeting one of the Pentagon's most well-known officials.

Like the July 11 complaint, most of the missives sent to the IG office and the Capitol are anonymous because of concerns of reprisal. "Dr Stanley has demonstrated that he is vindictive against those who merely offer contrary opinions," the July 11 complaint claims. "The reprisals he would carry out against those who lodged a complaint would be severe."

Several officials who work or have worked within various personnel and readiness offices spoke with National Journal on condition of anonymity, and they back many of the allegations made in the complaints against Stanley. The complaints charge that Stanley decimated much of the institutional knowledge within personnel and readiness offices by transferring, firing, or forcing into retirement 30 civilians in the top-tier senior executive service ranks. A senior P&R official said he couldn't believe all 30 were unfit for their jobs, saying it cost the department a huge loss in brain trust.

At least two other officials - a colonel and a high-ranking government civilian -- were fired on the spot, sending a "chilling tone" throughout P&R offices, according to the July 11 complaint. Other allegations in the various complaints suggest that Stanley has hired unqualified people, including at least one friend, to replace high-level staff.

Stanley, meanwhile, has created new and often redundant positions within P&R, at an added expense to the Defense Department, according to a May complaint filed by unnamed Defense Department executives. In one case, Stanley tapped former Maine Gov. John Baldacci to be the department's "health czar." Officials argue in the complaint that Baldacci and his team are doing work that should be handled by the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and his staff.

At a time when the Defense Department is trying to cut the amount of work it outsources, Stanley has also spent more than $5 million on a contract with McKinsey & Co. to help create a strategic plan for P&R and conduct an employee survey. According to the May complaint, McKinsey contractors completed the employee survey in the fall, but Stanley refused to release it because it was so "damaging", adding: "If the survey were given again, the results would be even more damning."

The July 11 complaint, meanwhile, takes issue with McKinsey contractors assisting with the strategic plan, an "inherently governmental" function that, legally, must be handled by defense officials. A P&R official said on condition of anonymity that it should have been done, and could have been done, inhouse.

Like the employee survey, the strategic plan has not been released, according to the complaints.

Others, meanwhile, have taken issue with Stanley's decision to build an expensive new conference room - whose price tag is estimated to be in the range of $360,000 to nearly $500,000 -- at a time when critical accounts, including programs for wounded warriors, have been cut. By one estimate, each chair in the new conference room cost about the annual salary of a lance corporal.

An August 3 complaint asserts that wounded-warrior accounts helped pay for both the McKinsey contract and the conference room. That complaint, which was sent to Congerss as well as to the IG from officials who work on wounded-warrior issues, says the money would have been better spent on the "Warrior Games," which is aimed at rebuilding injured troops' self-esteem and confidence as they transition to civilian life. Funding for that program was slashed as part of a broader $11 million cut to wounded-warrior accounts.

"So these heroes really paid for the soft chairs and $30,000 of wall decor (and a lot more) so Dr. Stanley could hold his morning staff meetings in luxury," according to the complaint.

Building the conference room is certainly not illegal. But one P&R official asserted in a July 13 complaint that it flies in the face of efforts within the Pentagon to cut unnecessary overhead. Stanley already had one conference room at his disposal in addition to other meeting rooms available throughout the Pentagon.

"The fact that this extravagance was clearly inconsistent with direction from the president and Secretary Gates to eliminate waste and efficiency was troubling to many," according to the July 13 complaint.

Officials interviewed for this story stressed that Stanley's leadership has had repercussions across the force. Many pointed to the system used to evaluate wounded personnel's disabilities as one of Stanley's biggest leadership failures. Processing time has grown from 291 days in May 2010 to 404 days in June 2011 -- leaving wounded personnel in limbo for more than a year.

"This means that because of Dr. Stanley's disruptive leadership and siphoning of funds for other purposes, a wounded warrior who lost a leg or his eyesight is now languishing in a Warrior Transition Unit this day for an additional 100 days!" officials wrote in the complaint filed earlier this month. "This fact pains us enormously."