Navy’s Top Officer Faulted for Slow Response to Sexual Harassment at ‘Bad Santa’ Party

Adm. John Richardson delivers remarks during the CNOs' 23rd International Seapower Symposium in September. Adm. John Richardson delivers remarks during the CNOs' 23rd International Seapower Symposium in September. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Luke McCall

The Pentagon inspector general’s office devoted 10 months to interviewing the Navy’s top brass and reviewing more than 25,000 emails to conclude that the powerful chief of naval operations waited too long to move against a public affairs officer who misbehaved at what became known as the “Bad Santa” Christmas party.

Adm. John Richardson was presented last April with the complaints against the PAO as well as an investigation of the complaints of groping and workplace propositioning from three female employees—two Navy officers and one civilian—during December 2016 holiday celebrations. But he waited until August to reassign the well-regarded press officer—unnamed in the redacted report released this month but identified in news reports last September as  Cmdr. Chris Servello.

The IG probe of the delayed response was requested by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and addressed incidents that took place at the holiday party given in the Pentagon by the chief of naval information, a bar in Baltimore and the Epic Restaurant in Arlington, Virginia.

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One woman said the uniformed press officer called her multiple times and sent two text messages, all within 40 minutes, saying, “We are leaving. You want company?” A second woman said the PAO, while at a bar in Baltimore, touched her thigh and asked if he could come up to her room and “make out.” That complainant also said the press officer, while dressed as Santa Claus at the holiday party at which alcohol was served, gave her “uncomfortably long hugs.” A third woman said he touched her buttocks at the party.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service immediately began a preliminary inquiry and on March 16, 2017, referred its findings to the Navy Regional Legal Service Office for a legal review.

It also instructed the PAO—who handles the CNO’s media relations and strategies—to stay away from the complainants. The Navy initially concluded that the PAO’s behavior did not rise to the “level of criminal sexual harassment,” but that he “consistently failed to demonstrate the maturity or judgment that would be expected of an officer in his position.”

The Defense Department IG took the probe deeper, interviewing Richardson and his deputies and reviewing calendars, the Navy’s daily media tracker, legal documents addressing the PAO’s actions, proposed courses of action Navy leadership could take, and multiple administrative documents, it said. Investigators also visited the workspaces of the alleged victims.

“We determined that Navy leadership took action to investigate the allegations during the initial period after learning of the first allegation against the PAO,” the DOD IG said. “Considering the separate investigations and the orders directing the PAO to stay away from Complainants 1 and 2, we concluded that the Navy leadership’s initial actions from December 15, 2016, through April 26, 2017, to investigate the PAO’s alleged misconduct and to determine legally supportable courses of action were appropriate and expeditious.”

But the IG criticized Richardson because, after making a decision on April 26, 2017, to reassign the PAO, he “did not take sufficient action to ensure that his decision was implemented in a timely manner,” despite having full authority to move him at any time.

Richardson waited until Aug. 18, 2017, to move the PAO, and Richardson acknowledged in the report and to Congress that he “could have done that faster.”

The IG wrote that the four-month delay “sent the wrong message about how seriously Adm. Richardson took the allegations of sexual harassment.”

The IG also concluded that Richardson’s handling of the situation did not constitute misconduct, but was a performance issue. “We found no applicable standard that required ADM Richardson to remove the PAO from his staff position immediately, or to reassign him to other duties within any specified time period after learning of complaints against him or investigations into his conduct,” the report said.

The IG recommended that the Navy evaluate Richardson’s performance in this instance and also implement a new policy on reassignments of personal staff that comes with a “timeliness standard” for implementation.

In his written response, Richardson said, “I welcome the level of scrutiny shown by your investigation as it is appropriate to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, an office which must enjoy the public trust. I have learned a great deal from this incident and will use these lessons going forward.”

Servello, whom Government Executive confirmed remains employed at the Defense Media Activity assigned to the Pentagon, told Navy Times that “that no charges were ever filed” and said the allegations and statements made about him were “in some cases just plain wrong.”

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