Ex-Staff Chief at El Toro Pleads Guilty : Military: Marine colonel admits to using government planes for golfing trips, among other violations, during hearing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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, said Capt. Betsy Sweatt, a spokeswoman for the base.

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

Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III is 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.

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 of improperly using military aircraft for golfing excursions to the East Coast, Nevada and elsewhere.

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 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 the twin-engine C-12 aircraft. It was suggested that Sabow had come under scrutiny for allegedly tolerating Underwood's use of those planes.

In previous interviews, Underwood had defended his use of the Marine C-12 Beechcraft planes, saying 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 interview with a Times reporter, Underwood denied any wrongdoing and said: "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."

The second violation, Sweatt said, involved "improper coercion or influence of subordinates." She said that 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 officers' 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 to the Marine who was forced to split the cost-saving award with Underwood.

Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.

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