In a rare rebuke of a high-ranking officer, the former commander of the Marine Corps' western air bases will be given a formal letter of reprimand and cited for improperly using an El Toro base plane and other abuses, a military commander ruled Friday.
The reprimand, the first given to a Marine general in at least a dozen years, was issued Friday against Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, the former El Toro-based commander who was reassigned to Quantico, Va., amid allegations that he had used base planes for trips with his fiancee and for other personal travel.
Military officials said the action could prove career-threatening to Adams, but they noted that it is a milder punishment than others open to the military.
Adams, 51, said he will appeal the decision to Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., the Marine Corps commandant.
"I've always maintained my innocence and still do," he said in an interview from Virginia.
In a military hearing Friday at the Quantico base, it was also found that Adams improperly filed an expense claim for a trip to Big Bear, which he took with his fiancee, and gave false information to military investigators about the incident.
But the Quantico base commander who delivered the ruling, Lt. Gen. Ernest T. Cook Jr., found that other unspecified allegations of wrongdoing against Adams were unsubstantiated.
The rebuke came four months after the Marine Corps began exploring allegations, first reported in an investigation by The Times, that Adams had used base planes for a series of trips that raised questions about his mix of personal and business travel.
Some of the general's critics found the trips particularly suspect because it was Adams who in January had disciplined two of his top aides because of allegations that those two men had misused base planes at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
One of the aides, Col. James E. Sabow, killed himself with a shotgun a few days after Adams suspended him in January. The other, Col. Joseph E. Underwood, was forced to retire early after being fined and fired as chief of staff at the El Toro base over allegations that he had used planes for golf trips and forced a kickback from an aide.
The Adams investigation, coming after Sabow's suicide, rocked the El Toro base.
Marine Corps officials reassigned Adams in May to unspecified duties at the Combat Development Command in Quantico after the investigation was opened, and were forced to juggle senior officers to fill the gap.
A new western air commander, Brig. Gen. P. Drax Williams, took over Adams' former duties last week as the top officer of bases at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma, Ariz.
Adams had faced the possibility of fines, court-martial or even criminal prosecution in the investigation into his actions by the Marine Corps' inspector general's office.
Sally Sabow, widow of the suicide victim, said she is not satisfied with the punishment. She added that she believes Adams' actions warranted a court-martial.
"That's all that came out of it?" Sabow asked. "They're covering for him, like they've been covering all along for him. I'm very disappointed in the military."
Nonetheless, some military officials said that the letter of reprimand and the official finding of wrongdoing could effectively end any chance of career advancement for Adams, a Naval War College graduate, Vietnam veteran and C-12 pilot.
"It's not going to help him, there's no doubt about that," said J.K. Davis, retired Marine general and former inspector general and commander at El Toro. "In this day and time," he said, a reprimand "is more serious than it was in the past."
Lt. Col. Jim Vance, a Marine Corps spokesman, said his research of military records kept since 1978 found no other cases of a general being called to an Article 15 hearing, as Adams was Friday. The hearing is an in-house proceeding used to discipline military personnel without resorting to a court-martial.
"I can't find a single instance of where this has happened before," Vance said. "It's a rare occasion, an extremely rare occasion."
While military sources have speculated that Adams would soon retire, the general gave no hint of his plans Friday as he spoke from Quantico. He is serving there as an aide to Cook with unspecified duties.
"We have been advised by Gen. Cook and others to appeal it, and that's what we're going to do," he said. Asked about retirement, he replied that he was "considering all sorts of options, but right now the focus is on appealing the decision."
Adams would not comment on any specific allegation discussed with Cook during the hearing Friday.
The wrongdoing cited by Cook Friday centers on a trip that Adams took to a Marine recreational facility in Big Bear in October, 1990. Adams split the time there between an official military inspection and a weekend vacation with his fiancee.
During that time, he had a military plane shuttle him to El Toro for a military funeral and back to the resort for his vacation.
In a statement issued late Friday, the Marine Corps said that Cook "determined that BGen. Adams had improperly used a government aircraft on a trip to Big Bear, Calif., and had improperly filed an expense claim for that trip. Additionally, BGen. Adams made a false official statement to investigators looking into the charges."
One of Adams' aides had also "bumped" a lower officer from the guest list at Big Bear so that the general could go there that weekend, according to a booking clerk. That allegation was not discussed in the military's statement Friday, however.
Marine Corps officials gave no further details on the findings, and Cook was not available for comment.
The statement also says that "while the inspector general had also investigated other allegations of misconduct" against Adams, Cook "determined those charges to be unsubstantiated."
Marine Corps officials have refused to say what allegations they have investigated or to discuss their findings. But in The Times investigation, Adams was also found to have taken at least four other trips that appeared to be questionable under military flight guidelines.
In December, 1990, he had flown cross-country in a C-12 Beechcraft to an aviators' conference in Virginia and, during the course of the flight, took a 552-mile side trip to Florida during a tropical storm and signed his divorce papers in court there.
He also flew a training mission in a C-12 to Washington state in December, 1990, and met his fiancee, who lived there; had a Marine plane pick him up from Southern California after a personal tragedy in 1988 and take him back to what was then his command in Yuma, and spent a weekend playing golf and visiting with a military friend in Pennsylvania in 1987.
Adams has steadfastly maintained that his trips were proper and legal and that they were taken either to maintain his flight status as an aviator or to meet his responsibilities as a commander. Adams also claimed that, unlike the two aides whom he disciplined, he never used military planes for golf trips or other personal excursions.