- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2000

An Air Force report has found that the service's deputy chief of chaplains, Brig. Gen. Lorraine K. Potter, made a remark about the abilities of black chaplains but it concludes the words were not "wrongfully" discriminatory.

The Air Force inspector's general report quotes two chaplains as saying Gen. Potter, the service's first female chaplain to achieve the rank of general, stated she did not want a black as an executive officer. Three chaplains quote her as questioning the ability of blacks to perform staff work.

But Maj. Gen. William J. Dendinger, the chief of chaplains, differed with those chaplains, saying he did not hear any offensive remarks.

"I think I would have caught on … if there were any sense of prejudice or she harbored any ill feelings toward any particular group," Gen. Dendinger testified, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Washington Times.

Gen. Potter told the inspector general's investigator she only said she wanted to make sure blacks had proper training before leaving the pulpit for staff jobs.

Based on the conflicting testimony, the investigator, Col. Maureen Vaccaro, did not substantiate a complaint that Gen. Potter "wrongfully made discriminatory remarks about African-American chaplains."

The investigator wrote that the chaplains were not sure of Gen. Potter's exact words or their context that day.

"Analysis of that testimony using the preponderance of the evidence standard shows that [Gen. Potter] did not make an unlawful discriminatory remark," the report states. "Recall of specific words and context varied greatly between witnesses."

The Air Force had no comment yesterday.

The investigation started in December after a black chaplain complained that Gen. Potter, an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, made a racially offensive statement in discussing duty assignments. The meeting occurred at Bolling Air Force Base one day after Gen. Potter pinned on her general's stars at a ceremony attended by Gen. Michael Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff.

The Times obtained a copy of a heavily blacked-out inspector general's report. Only the name of the chaplain who filed the complaint, Col. Walter Beamon, was not marked out.

Gen. Potter "made a remark about the abilities of the individual African-American chaplains" after another chaplain brought up the subject during a discuss on assignments, the 29-page report states. It says that one of those in attendance "interpreted [the] remark as offensive." Another participant "did not interpret the remark as offensive at the time of the meeting but concluded that it was 'ill made' after receiving input from" another chaplain.

Col. Beamon, the Air Force's senior black chaplain, did not attend the meeting at Bolling. He based his charge on conversations with those in attendance.

Col. Beamon quoted Gen. Potter as saying, "African-American chaplains are good pastors and preachers but cannot do staff work."

The report said Col. Vaccaro followed Military Equal Opportunity standards that required her to "determine both the substance and context of what was said by [Gen. Potter]."

One present testified that the topic of black chaplains arose when the discussion turned to finding an African-American suitable for a senior staff job. He recalled Gen. Potter saying, "African-American chaplains make good pastors but not good staff officers." He added, "Whatever I write down would probably be my spin on it but I think the best of my knowledge that's as close as I can remember her saying." No minutes were taken at the meeting.

The witness added, "Now whether she meant that she thought all African-Americans are good pastors and they don't make good staff officers, you know, is that her intent? I don't know … what I took from that is that she really didn't want an African-American as her exec officer up there."

The chaplain said he was "shocked" by the remark, but said nothing in protest at the meeting.

A second chaplain at the meeting said, "She said she did not want an African-American in that job, in the staff job. She said she needed someone in there you know but she didn't want an African-American in that job. She said the African-Americans make great speakers, make good pastors, but they do not make good staff officers."

He testified that no one challenged Gen. Potter's remark at the meeting.

"I didn't want to go to social actions, IG or anything like that because I just didn't want to bring discredit or ill repute to the chaplain corps … I knew what I heard was right, but I felt that if I tried to do something about it as being a racist statement, that I could probably be a civilian out on the street, so to speak."

A third chaplain recalled Gen. Potter as saying "our African-American chaplains are excellent pastors but not necessarily good staff officers." He termed the remark "ill made," but added the general always had spoken fairly about minorities and said they needed mentoring before taking on staff jobs outside the pulpit.

The Air Force investigator said this witness agreed with the characterization that her remark "could have been an attempt to emphasize the importance of giving minority chaplains a fair chance to succeed while not setting them up to fail by prematurely moving a minority into a staff position."

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