Complaints filed against senior military officials have increased over the past few years, but fewer cases are being investigated and even fewer senior officers are found guilty of misconduct, according to data from the Defense Department inspector general.
"Only a very small percentage of these officials fail to uphold the high ideals and ethics required of their critical positions," Glenn Fine, the inspector general, told lawmakers Wednesday. "However, some do commit misconduct, either willfully or negligently. When they do, they need to be held accountable."
During fiscal year 2017, the most recent year for which data was released, there were 803 complaints filed compared with 787 in the prior year, according to information released Wednesday during a House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee hearing. However, of those 803 complaints, only 144 were investigated by the Inspector general. Of those 144 cases, there were just 49 substantiated senior misconduct cases. That's down from a high of 85 substantiated misconduct cases against senior leaders in 2012.
In written testimony provided to the House subcommittee, the Department of Defense's inspector general said that in fiscal year 2017, the number of cases "involving substantiated senior official misconduct involved approximately 2 percent of the DoD senior official population."
Fine said the time to finish investigations had more than doubled between 2015 and 2017, from 235 days to 472 days.
Misconduct allegations, according to the Pentagon, include, but are not limited to, improperly using government vehicles, improper hiring practices, inappropriate sexual or business relationships, or scheduling official travel for personal reasons.
Several senior military officials told lawmakers that they are seeing significantly more "whistleblower" complaints, but that few alleged offenders are found guilty.
Lt. Gen. David Quantock, the Army's inspector general, said that while whistleblower reprisal remains the most common allegation made in the Army, the substantiation rate for those cases is just 4%. Quantock said that one reason why that rate is so low is that the whistleblower reprisal process is being misused.
"Whistleblower reprisal remains the No. 1 allegation," he said. "The substantiation rate for whistleblower reprisal cases is 4%. A significant factor in the low substantiation rate is the misuse of the whistleblower reprisal process."
"The resulting claim of reprisal creates challenges for senior commanders who hold people accountable and then are faced with an inspector general whistleblower reprisal investigation," he said.
Those complaints, he added, are often made by lower-level service members or civilians after they were punished for misconduct or inadequate performance.
Democrats on the subcommittee said they were concerned that punishment of lower-ranking officers was not as strict as that for senior officers.
"There is a phrase in the military that goes like this: Different spanks, for different ranks," California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier said, adding that "many senior leaders who should be the essential core of the chain of command are not being held to the same standard of the rank and file. This corrupts fairness, justice and morale."
Senior military leaders, as well as as Republican members of Congress, pushed back on that assertion, however, insisting that the military is much harsher on senior officers than lower-ranking service members.
Fine said few senior leaders accused of misconduct have been found guilty.