An agreement has been reached that would cut short a controversial hearing at the El Toro Marine base in which a high-ranking officer was accused by a Marine Corps defense lawyer of sexual harassment and intimidation of witnesses.
But whether the agreement is accepted is up to top Marine Corps officials in Washington. A spokesman there said Thursday that it will probably take three to four weeks to make a decision.
At stake is the normally routine question of whether a Marine--in this case Lance Cpl. Sonia M. Kourchenko--should be given something less than an honorable discharge.
She already has admitted using marijuana while assigned to the air station at El Toro, and her commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thomas F. O’Malley Jr., has recommended an “other than honorable” discharge.
But during the first session of the hearing three weeks ago, Kourchenko’s attorney, Maj. Patrick C. Butler, counterattacked. He charged that O’Malley, commander of Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352, participated in and permitted sexual harassment of women under his command and used threats and trumped-up charges to intimidate witnesses in drug-related cases.
Butler alleged that Kourchenko used marijuana, then told officers she had done so only as a way of escaping the “atmosphere of sexual harassment and fear” in O’Malley’s squadron.
(O’Malley did not attend the hearing and has declined comment on the allegations.)
Butler submitted several affidavits, including one from O’Malley’s former legal officer, who wrote that he had been sent by O’Malley to tell witnesses in a drug case to agree with O’Malley’s recommendations or expect some “hard times.”
The officer later recanted his allegations, but still later reiterated them in another affidavit, claiming he had been forced to recant by pressure from O’Malley.
Hampered by Pressure
Butler said pressure from O’Malley was preventing him from interviewing witnesses that could help in defending Kourchenko. The Feb. 11 hearing was recessed to give Butler more time to gather statements from witnesses.
Sources close to the case indicated that Butler had gathered several additional affidavits. On Wednesday, the base public affairs office announced that further hearings in the case were indefinitely postponed.
“Lance Cpl. Kourchenko submitted a request to waive the remainder of the board (hearing) in exchange for a general discharge. Maj. Gen. John I. Hudson, commanding general, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, evaluated her request and recommended approval to headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, in Washington . . . ,” the announcement stated. “The administrative discharge board will be held in abeyance pending approval of the waiver by the commandant (of the Marine Corps).”
Maj. Don Kappel, a Marine Corps spokesman in Washington, said that “some time this month would be a reasonable expectation for resolution of this recommendation.”
He said that while he has no statistics on whether such recommendations from commanders are ever countermanded, “obviously any informed recommendation from a CG (commanding general) is going to be taken seriously.”