The Bush administration has overturned a Clinton administration decision and approved the post-active-duty promotion of one of the most prominent Navy officers caught up in the Tailhook scandal.
Retired Cmdr. Robert Stumpf will be elevated to captain, six years after he quit the service in disgust when it blocked his promotion despite four inquiries that cleared him of wrongdoing at the notorious aviation convention.
“I conclude at this time that an injustice has resulted in not promoting petitioner to the grade of captain,” wrote William Navas Jr., assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs, in a July 23 memo.
He authorized the Board of Correction of Naval Records to amend Cmdr. Stumpf’s personnel file to show he retired as a captain, with date of rank of July 1, 1995.
Mr. Navas found “no error” in the decision by Navy Secretary John Dalton to stop Cmdr. Stumpf’s advancement.
But Charles Gittins, the pilot’s attorney, sees it otherwise.
“Secretary Dalton acted in response to improper political pressure from a few members of the Senate concerned with feminist backlash,” the lawyer said yesterday.
The victory for Cmdr. Stumpf is both symbolically and monetarily rewarding. His career as a Navy pilot remains over, but the Navy is now saying the way he was treated was unjust. Plus, the 23-year officer will receive six years of back pay for the difference in a commander’s and a captain’s retirement pay, and collect a retirement check of about $500 more monthly.
The ex-flying ace came to symbolize what some pilots and conservative groups saw as a “witch hunt” against naval officers who attended the 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas.
Cmdr. Stumpf is now flying cargo jets carrying night-run deliveries for FedEx. But in the mid-1990s, he stood as one of the Navy’s best fighter pilots. Decorated for 22 combat missions over Iraq during Desert Storm, the F-18 Hornet pilot commanded the prestigious Blue Angels flying team. The Navy selected him for promotion to captain and command of a carrier air wing, making his reaching the rank of admiral seem a matter of time.
The Senate unanimously approved his promotion to captain in 1994. But Mr. Dalton pulled his name off the promotion list and ordered what was the fifth inquiry into the officer’s conduct at Tailhook, the name given an association of past and current naval fliers. Leery of another inquisition after previous inquiries cleared him, Cmdr. Stumpf retired. Mr. Gittins, his attorney, began a battle within the appeals bureaucracy to overturn Mr. Dalton’s decision.
In June, the naval records board, a group of Navy civilian officials, recommended that Cmdr. Stumpf be promoted. On Monday, a Navy lawyer informed Mr. Gittins that Mr. Navas, a Bush appointee, had accepted the board’s recommendation.
Cmdr. Stumpf issued a statement saying, “My family and I are exceptionally pleased by the Navy’s decision. We hope this is the beginning of a measured re-examination of the injustices accorded to hundreds of naval officers whose promising careers were terminated prematurely during the shameful political hysteria following the 1993 investigations.
“While it is nice to set the record straight after all these years, I sincerely regret that I was forced to leave active service before my tour of duty as a carrier air wing commander, a position for which the Navy had invested so much in preparing me. Likewise, it remains painful and frustrating to have to watch from the sidelines while my former colleagues prosecute the war on terror.”
With hundreds of other Navy fliers, Cmdr. Stumpf attended Tailhook ‘91 to bask in carrier aviation’s stellar performance in the Persian Gulf war a few months earlier.
But the gathering was marred by drunken and lewd behavior by some fliers, sparking a full-blown investigation by the Pentagon inspector general.
The commander faced two issues: Junior officers in his squadron paid for a stripper to perform in a private hotel suite to celebrate a pilot’s promotion. Cmdr. Stumpf also used an F-18 to fly to and from Las Vegas to receive a squadron award.
The Pentagon IG, a Navy board of inquiry, Mr. Dalton himself and a Navy admiral all looked into his actions and cleared him. A Navy captains’ board recommended promotion, and the Navy sent his name to the Senate, which concurred.
But in 1995, the Senate Armed Services Committee advised Mr. Dalton not to promote Cmdr. Stumpf.
A letter urging no promotion was signed by then-committee Chairman Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, and Sam Nunn of Georgia, then the ranking Democrat. They said the Navy erred in not forwarding Cmdr. Stumpf’s Tailhook file when the committee initially acted. The lawmakers said if they had seen the information, they would not have voted to promote.
The pilot had one strong committee ally, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a former Navy combat pilot. Mr. McCain fought strenuously for Cmdr. Stumpf in closed-door committee meetings in 1994 and 1995.
In June, he sent a letter to Navy Secretary Gordon England endorsing a retroactive promotion.
“Cmdr. Stumpf was subjected to a humiliating, highly unprofessional investigation regarding the events at the 1991 Tailhook Association Symposium,” Mr. McCain wrote. “Although this matter called for a serious, meticulous, by-the-book investigation, solid officers such as Cmdr. Stumpf instead were interrogated unfairly and effectively denied due process. It is well past the time for the Navy to right this wrong.”
Mr. Dalton heeded the committee’s advice and took Cmdr. Stumpf off the promotion list. But a second Navy promotion board again recommended him for captain. Mr. Dalton then ordered a new “fresh look” investigation. Fed up, Cmdr. Stumpf walked out of an interrogation at the Pentagon and retired.
Navy officials strenuously defended Mr. Dalton’s action. They said he publicly backed the pilot but had no choice but to order a new investigation when the Armed Services Committee advised him not to promote the pilot.