- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from one of the Navy's first female combat pilots, who accused a pro-military group of libel in reporting that the aviator qualified for carrier duty through preferential treatment from instructors.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, in a 55-page opinion dated Friday, dismissed the 6-year-old suit brought by former Navy Lt. Carey Dunai Lohrenz against Elaine Donnelly, a well-known activist who heads the Center for Military Readiness, or CMR.

In 1995, Mrs. Donnelly issued a report based largely on information provided by one of Mrs. Lohrenz's former flight instructors, retired Navy Lt. Jerry Burns. Lt. Burns said he documented a series of special favors given to Mrs. Lohrenz when she was a student to ensure she would qualify for carrier aviation in the demanding F-14 Tomcat fighter.

Mrs. Lohrenz, who subsequently flunked off the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and left the Navy, disputed the report and filed the defamation suit. She said her flying performance on the carrier was a direct result of the negative publicity generated by the Donnelly report.

Judge Lamberth, after lawyers filed reams of written arguments over six years, sided with Mrs. Donnelly on one key legal issue: He ruled that Mrs. Lohrenz was a public figure at the time of the report's publication. As such, her attorneys failed to meet a public figure's burden of showing Mrs. Donnelly deliberately published false information, the judge ruled in dismissing the suit.

Susan Barnes, Mrs. Lohrenz's lead attorney, did not return a phone message left yesterday at her Denver law office. She has the right to appeal Judge Lamberth's ruling.

In a recent interview, Ms. Barnes said she had filed affidavits in support of her client's position that Mrs. Donnelly's report was false.

Judge Lamberth did not take sides on whether the subject of the suit Mrs. Donnelly's published report was true or false.

"You will see why we are strongly convinced why we have an excellent case," Ms. Barnes said. "My goal is to vindicate Carey Lohrenz's reputation as a pilot. Our case is she's a wonderful pilot, and her career was destroyed by Elaine Donnelly."

Mrs. Donnelly said yesterday the judge's decision vindicates her determination to ensure the Navy did not lower training standards just to get more female pilots in the fleet.

"It's a tremendous victory," Mrs. Donnelly said from her office in Livonia, Mich. "It will be good for the Navy, as well as for CMR. The opinion shows I had a First Amendment right to report what I learned. I found it was true, and it was important to naval aviation."

Mrs. Donnelly, who has waged a battle against what she considers politically correct policies in the armed forces, posted a statement on her Web site. She called the lawsuit "pure harassment by feminist advocates who misused the court to threaten my rights of free speech."

"This victory upholds the right of CMR to question official policies that elevate risks, and to advocate high, uncompromised standards in naval aviation training," she said.

On the issue of whether Mrs. Lohrenz won F-14 qualification through special treatment, the judge called the question "extremely muddled," with some official reports giving credence to CMR and some to the former pilot.

The judge said one initial Navy review of the CMR report "actually validated much of the underlying information in the possession of defendant Donnelly."

But he added: "Every report and statement issued by the Navy has definitively concluded that although [Mrs. Lohrenz] may not have been suited for some types of piloting, she was promoted because of her abilities and not because of any alleged 'double standards.'"

The judge's decision rested on whether Mrs. Lohrenz was a "limited purpose" public figure, a position argued by Mrs. Donnelly's attorney. Unlike private citizens, public figures bringing libel suits face an added burden of proving "actual malice." The U.S. Supreme Court created the standard four decades ago to protect the right to make critical comments about public officials. To prove actual malice, Mrs. Lohrenz needed to show Mrs. Donnelly knew what she was publishing was false or that she reported it with "reckless disregard" for the truth.

Judge Lamberth wrote that Mrs. Lohrenz's training as a pioneering female pilot made her a public figure, even though she may not have sought such status. He said that Mrs. Donnelly had no reason to reject Lt. Burns' account of Mrs. Lohrenz's training, as it was based on highly technical and detailed descriptions from a certified instructor.

"Contrary to plaintiff's argument, it is well-settled that private individuals may become limited-purpose public figures unwillingly without voluntarily thrusting themselves into the public eye," the judge said. "The extent of the press coverage also inclines this court to hold that the plaintiff was a limited-purpose public figure."

Mrs. Lohrenz was one of the first women tapped by the Navy to attempt to qualify as a carrier combat pilot after Congress lifted a legal ban in 1994.

She qualified on the F-14 Tomcat and went to sea, only to flunk out for what the Navy called substandard flying. Lt. Kara Hultgreen, a shipmate, was killed when her own F-14 crashed while attempting to land on the USS Abraham Lincoln. A confidential Navy report blamed Lt. Hultgreen for the accident.

It was Lt. Hultgreen's death that prompted Lt. Burns to contact Mrs. Donnelly and charge that Mrs. Lohrenz had received special treatment during training.

While Mrs. Lohrenz served on the carrier, Mrs. Donnelly released a report in 1995 accusing Navy instructors of lowering standards so the Navy could reach its goal of deploying female combat aviators.

Lt. Burns said his superior told him and other instructors that Mrs. Lohrenz and Lt. Hultgreen must complete the course. Lt. Burns, whom the Navy forced to retire for violating privacy regulations in releasing the documents, said Mrs. Lohrenz received seven unsatisfactory marks more than enough to flunk her.

"He told her [Mrs. Donnelly] that Lohrenz's training records were the worst he had ever seen, yet she was graduated to the fleet," Mrs. Donnelly's attorney, Kent Masterson Brown, said in a March court filing that asked Judge Lamberth to dismiss the suit.

Lt. Burns considers himself a government whistleblower who acted to protect the integrity of naval aviation training for the demanding job of putting a twin-engine jet fighter on the tight deck of a supercarrier.

Lt. Burns also said the Navy misled the public on the cause of the Hultgreen crash an accusation that seemed to be supported by a secret naval investigative report that blamed pilot error and was leaked to a newspaper.

Mrs. Lohrenz also sued The Washington Times, which published an article based on Mrs. Donnelly's report. Mrs. Lohrenz later dismissed her claims against The Times.

A military advocate, Mrs. Donnelly can lay claim to two recent victories. She helped convince Bush appointees in the Pentagon to revamp a women's advisory board to de-emphasize its eight-year push to get women in more combat jobs.

She also lobbied the Pentagon to take female soldiers out of a new Army reconnaissance squadron. She said the assignments violated the Defense Department's ban on women in land combat. This spring, the Army agreed and removed the women.

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