Officer Pleads Guilty to Using Marine Planes : Military: Former chief of staff at El Toro base admits to four violations at hearing. He is spared a court-martial.


Col. Joseph E. Underwood, former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station chief of staff, has pleaded guilty to charges that include misusing base planes and other military property and coercing a kickback from a subordinate, a spokeswoman said Saturday.

The admission by the 29-year Marine veteran occurred Friday, ending a monthlong investigation during which a fellow officer and close friend implicated in the case committed suicide.

Underwood, who was relieved of duty as second in command of base operations last month, pleaded guilty to four violations during an administrative hearing before Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, base spokeswoman Capt. Betsy Sweatt said.

The Article 15 hearing saved Underwood from a possible criminal court-martial, during which he could have lost most, if not all, of his retirement benefits and faced imprisonment. Instead, Underwood will retain his $3,700-a-month retirement pay when he leaves the military.

Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III is currently reviewing his request to retire on April 1, Sweatt said.

"He's not going to be given any official duties between now and then," Sweatt said. "And he won't be flying."

Underwood could not be reached Saturday. A woman answering the phone at his home declined to comment.

The 59-year-old Vietnam veteran came under investigation in early January when an anonymous caller telephoned base officials and accused the high-ranking Marine officer of improperly using military aircraft for golfing excursions to the East Coast, Nevada and elsewhere.

Some sources said that in addition to misappropriating government aircraft, Underwood, who is an avid golfer, also allegedly billed the government improperly for hotel and car-rental expenses while on those trips.

He did not face charges in connection with those allegations.

The inquiry took a bizarre twist when Underwood's next-door neighbor and immediate subordinate, Col. James E. Sabow, 51, killed himself with a shotgun after being relieved of duty, also in connection with the case.

Sabow, a highly decorated Vietnam combat officer, was directly responsible for all El Toro air operations, including the use of C-12 aircraft. It was suggested that Sabow had come under scrutiny for allegedly tolerating Underwood's use of those planes.

In a telephone interview on Saturday, Sabow's widow, Sally, declined to comment directly on Underwood's admissions, citing the "sensitivity" of the matter.

"The two cases are totally separate," Sally Sabow said. "There should not be a guilt by association."

In previous interviews, Underwood has defended his use of the Marine C-12 twin-engine Beechcraft planes, saying that the trips gave him a chance to pilot the planes and keep his flight status active. He said it was incidental that he went golfing during the trips.

In a Jan. 23 telephone interview, Underwood denied any wrongdoing to a Times reporter, adding, "I would love to give my side of the story."

But Sweatt said that during Friday's Article 15 hearing before Adams, Underwood made an apparent about-face.

"Specifically, he admitted guilt to using government aircraft for transportation to and from areas for other than military purposes," Sweatt said. She would not elaborate.

That was one of four violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to which Underwood pleaded guilty.

The first violation, which included the wrongful use of military aircraft, also charged Underwood with "using vehicles, personnel and a base computer for other than government business."

Sweatt said that Underwood repeatedly dispatched subordinates to handle his personal affairs. One time, she said, Underwood sent a Marine to an off-base auto repair shop, ordering him to wait there until work on Underwood's car was completed so he could drive it back to base.

He also checked out a base computer for home use, Sweatt said.

The second violation, Sweatt said, involved "improper coercion or influence of subordinates." She said when a fellow Marine submitted a base cost-cutting suggestion in order to win a $1,500 prize, Underwood would not pass the suggestion on to higher authorities until the Marine agreed to split the winnings.

The third and fourth violations accused Underwood of dereliction of duty and making a false official statement involving his physical condition. Sweatt also declined to elaborate on those allegations.

"He pleaded guilty to all four of those charges," Sweatt said.

Underwood was ordered to forfeit $4,000 in pay and was banned from using all air station offices, the base golf course and the officer's club. He also received an official letter of reprimand.

Before the administrative hearing, Underwood made a voluntary restitution of more than $2,300, Sweatt said. Part of that money went back to the Marine who was forced to split the cost-saving award with Underwood.

Adams had the option of convening a formal court-martial or holding the Article 15 hearing, a more informal method of dealing with disciplinary matters.

"He (Adams) looked at all the facts in the case and determined that the Article 15 (hearing) was the proper step to take," Sweatt said.

Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this report.

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