WASHINGTON – A Marine colonel who investigated a sexual harassment claim at a troubled program inside the Corps’ Quantico headquarters was later counseled for allegedly harassing the wife of the unit’s chaplain, referring to her as “eye candy.”
A Marine inspector general’s report in 2015 called out a toxic work environment at the Marine and Family Programs Division at Quantico. The report says the program struggled with complaints of sexual harassment, racial bias and bad management, including a secret settlement reached with one official to get her to leave quietly from the base known as the “Crossroads of the Marine Corps.” The Marines have not released the report, but USA TODAY obtained a copy.
Two civilian employees renewed complaints dating to 2013 about an officer they said made overt sexual overtures to them at the base. The women maintained in interviews and documents that the Marine Corps did not take their complaints seriously.
The investigation into the troubled Marine and Family Programs Division, which includes the Corps’ sexual assault prevention and response program, showed that Col. Ernest Ackiss was appointed in 2013 to investigate one of several allegations of sexual harassment against the Marine officer. Ackiss found the complaint about inappropriate texts from the officer failed to “meet the threshold of the definition of sexual harassment.”
Two years later, Ackiss was himself the subject of an investigation into harassment. The division’s chaplain, a Navy lieutenant commander, told the inspector general that his wife was the subject of inappropriate comments. She worked directly for Ackiss.
“The Col. called his spouse ‘eye candy,’ ” according to the report.
Ackiss’ superiors investigated the chaplain’s complaint and “counseled” Ackiss, the report says. Ackiss, who has retired, could not be reached for comment.
The Marine Corps stands by Ackiss’ original investigation, Maj. Garron Garn, a Marine spokesman, said in a statement.
“There is no indication the Marine Corps was aware of any allegations of sexual harassment at the time he was appointed to conduct the investigation,” Garn said.
Scott Jensen, who retired in 2016 as the colonel in charge of Marine sexual assault prevention programs, said Ackiss’ behavior amounts to the fox guarding the hen house and called on the Marines to reopen the investigation into the women’s claims.
“How can someone make a sound judgment on one case and then demonstrate he doesn’t have the judgment to avoid the behavior himself?” said Jensen, CEO of Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group for military victims of sexual assault. “Justice wasn’t served. If they are truly interested in seeing justice, they would take the time to reinvestigate.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the Armed Services Committee, questioned Gen. Glenn Walters, assistant commandant of the Marines, on the women’s cases, and he promised to review them.
The complaint Ackiss investigated was one of several claims made by Traci Sharpe and Sherry Yetter. They maintained that the officer, Maj. David Cheek, harassed them, including showing them an erection through his clothing. Cheek denied the allegations, and Marine Corps’ investigations did not substantiate their accusations.
“The Marine Corps does not do a good job of investigating claims,” Sharpe said Wednesday. “It’s an institution that covers for itself.”
The inspector general’s report was launched to investigate complaints about discrimination, harassment and cronyism, among other concerns. The investigation concluded that there was no evidence of waste, fraud, abuse or senior leader misconduct.
The report notes that a “persistent chasm” existed between the military and civilian workforce, particularly in the Marine and Family Program Division’s Behavioral Health Branch. The report says the Marines negotiated a confidential settlement with the civilian chief of the branch after an investigation into allegations that she created a hostile work environment.
Citing a previous investigation of the unit, the inspector general’s report says the “style of leadership” of the branch head, Ann Crittenden, allowed for an “unhealthy environment that appears to include discrimination.”
According to the investigation, “multiple staff witnessed Ms. Crittenden’s actions towards staff and perceived her actions as unprofessional, offensive and racially bias (sic).” The report concludes that “Crittenden’s behavior is unprofessional and inappropriate for the civilian workplace.”
The investigation recommended “significant disciplinary action” be taken against her and noted that she had been “proposed for removal.”
Crittenden hired a lawyer and negotiated a settlement with the Marine Corps, according to the report. The settlement included her resignation May 14, 2015, and stipulated that she not work for the Marine Corps for two years.
Less than two years later, Crittenden appeared as the point of contact on the official Marine Corps website for an initiative by its war fighting laboratory. Her email indicates she works for a contractor. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Garn, the Marine spokesman, would not comment on Crittenden’s case.
“The results of personnel actions are not releasable, to include settlement agreements,” Garn said. “In general, the Marine Corps covers the cost of any settlement payments from its own budget. Settlement agreements are used to resolve disputes and claims and may include non-monetary and/or monetary provisions.”
Jensen said the settlement appears to be an attempt to conceal the problems.
“Looks like the Marine Corps negotiated a settlement and paid money for something that they were either unwilling or unable to enforce,” Jensen said. “I would bet red tape or poor negotiating created a situation where an individual got paid to stay away but is still able to draw a paycheck from the Corps. Doesn’t sound like a responsible use of taxpayer money.”
Congress should prod the Marines, and other government agencies, to be more transparent about cash settlements, said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
“Congress should be looking at all federal agencies to make disclosures about settlement amounts and where they come from,” Smithberger said. “Congress needs to make sure it does not cover up misconduct.”
The report, which Smithberger reviewed, indicates problems may be deeper at Quantico because several employees feared reprisal over lodging complaints.
“At the very least, this report seems to be skeptical of complainants, if not biased against them,” Smithberger said.