The Marine Corps on Wednesday removed the commanding general of the western air bases from his post here and reassigned him to Virginia amid an investigation into his use of base planes for personal trips.
"This action was deemed necessary to ensure a fair and thorough investigation and to preserve the efficient and orderly functioning of the commands," Marine Corps Headquarters said in a prepared statement.
The decision to remove Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, 51, from his post at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro came less than a month after The Times detailed five flights taken by Adams on a Marine-owned C-12 Beechcraft that raised questions about his use of base planes.
The Marine Corps inspector general's office is continuing its investigation into Adams' conduct, however, and the general could still face disciplinary action.
Brig. Gen. Harold W. Blot, who is assistant commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at El Toro, was named as a temporary replacement for Adams as commander over the Marine air bases at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma, Ariz.
Blot was out of the state Wednesday and could not be reached for comment on the day's developments.
Adams, reached in Washington Wednesday night, declined to discuss any aspect of the case, saying, "I truly have absolutely no comment."
The Marine Corps set no time for him to report to Quantico, Va., for duty at the Combat Development Command there as a special assistant to the commander.
It was Adams who had suspended two of his top aides in January after allegations centering on their own use of the Beechcraft for golfing jaunts around the country surfaced. One of the aides, Col. James E. Sabow, ultimately killed himself as the Marine Corps inspector general's office in Washington was investigating the case.
But just three months before disciplining Sabow and Col. Joseph E. Underwood, then chief of staff at El Toro, Adams had ordered a base plane to shuttle him between the El Toro air station and a Marine Corps lodge at Big Bear for a combination inspection and vacation with his fiancee, The Times investigation found.
The civilian administrator of the lodge later alleged that an Adams' aide had a lower officer bumped from the guest list in order to secure a spot for the general in Big Bear.
En route to a military convention in Virginia, Adams also flew the C-12 turboprop on a 552-mile side trip to Florida during a tropical storm and signed his divorce decree there. He also met his fiancee in Washington State after flying there on a training mission; spent a weekend with a friend and golf partner in Pennsylvania during another training exercise; and ordered a plane to pick him up from Burbank after a family emergency in 1987 to take him back to the air station at Yuma.
Adams has defended these trips as proper, saying he was getting in flight time at the controls of an aircraft. But military officials have said that all of these flights raise questions about mixing business travel and personal flights, which is strictly prohibited by military guidelines.
The reassignment of a general in the middle of his assignment is rare, military officials said.
Adams had taken over as commander of the western air stations just last September, and he has said in past interviews that he expected to remain there for several more years.
Adams flew to Washington last week, and he has been meeting with Marine Corps Inspector Gen. Hollis Davison on the allegations pending against him. That inquiry will continue even after Adams goes to Virginia to assume his new post.
Members of Davison's investigating team had remained tight-lipped about the progress of their inquiry since last week. But after a day of meetings that one officer there described as hectic, the Marine Corps Headquarters offered its first statement on the case Wednesday.
It notes that there are allegations that Adams "misused his authority" and says that the general has been "reassigned to the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va., for duty."
Marine Corps officials in the El Toro command and in Washington refused to comment publicly on the significance of the move. But Sally Sabow, the widow of Col. Sabow, spoke her mind bluntly:
"I think he should be put out altogether, but that'll come," she said. "I don't think he really belongs in the Marine Corps--he's wrecked the image of this (El Toro) base."
Sabow was removed from his job as assistant chief of staff after he reportedly used a base plane to ferry stereo speakers, rugs and other items to Washington state for his son. Other trips Sabow made were also in question.
Lt. Col. Ron Stokes, a spokesman for the Marine Corps in Washington, said that "basically, Gen. Adams is being assigned as a special assistant" to the commanding general of the Quantico command, Lt. Gen. Earnest T. Cook Jr. "His specific duties have not been determined."
Stokes and Col. Jim Williams, the deputy inspector general for the Marine Corps, declined to characterize the action or to speculate on Adams' future, as did officials at El Toro.
"I never question higher headquarters' good judgment," said Col. Jack Wagner, who replaced Underwood as chief of staff at El Toro earlier this year and who has been acting commander for the last week while Adams has been in Washington.
"I can't comment on any of this," Wagner said. "We at the command are continuing to march."
At El Toro and the other air bases under Adams' command, however, speculation about Adams' future was rampant. According to most ranking officers, who spoke only on condition that they not be named, the outlook is not good.
"The guy was a commanding general of a major military installation; now he's an assistant--draw your own conclusions," said one officer at El Toro who has been close to the case.
Several other sources said they believe that Marine Corps leaders moved Adams some 3,000 miles from Orange County in order to divert public attention from the case and to "get the heat off" the corps until the investigation is closed.
Gen. J.K. Davis, a retired four-star general now living in Orange County, offered a similar interpretation, saying: "I think this was the appropriate action. If I'd been in Washington, I'd have done the same thing. This thing has gone on and on, and the only thing to do was to reassign (Adams).
"I don't think people should read too much into this," said Davis, who has spoken with the inspector general about the case. "The fact is (Adams) has lost a certain amount of effectiveness and isn't able to concentrate on his job. He's spending too much time looking at this and responding to allegations. . . . Common sense says you should move him."