Reprimanded General Escaped Worse Penalty : Military: Harsh report that called former commander of El Toro Marine base ‘derelict’ was rejected.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Marine general who reprimanded the ex-commander of the Marine Corps’ western air bases last week rejected the conclusions of a scathing report by military investigators who found his conduct “a dereliction of duty.”

A Marine Corps Inspector General’s report, obtained by The Times, said that Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams flew a fighter jet repeatedly while on heart medication, spent $7,000 in government funds to redecorate his El Toro quarters and failed to identify and correct “serious problems” at the base during the buildup to the Persian Gulf War.

But despite the detailed critique, none of these issues were included in the censure that Adams received last week from his current commander at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., following an in-house disciplinary proceeding.

The commander, Lt. Gen. Ernest T. Cook Jr., overrode nearly all the report’s conclusions, calling them “unsubstantiated.” Instead, he said Adams erred only in connection with a single trip to Big Bear last year with his fiancee, and Cook issued a letter of reprimand against Adams because of it.

The reprimand, a rare action against a general, is considered a serious rebuke and will probably end any chance of career advancement for Adams, who was reassigned from the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro to Quantico in May after questions were raised about his use of military planes for personal trips.

But it was a milder penalty than others open to Cook, including fines, a court-martial or even the prospect of criminal prosecution against the 51-year-old general.

Cook, who is retiring in October as commander of the Combat Development Command at Quantico, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. His aides have indicated previously that he would not discuss the matter because it is likely to be appealed by Adams.

Adams, who has maintained his innocence since the allegations of misusing military aircraft first surfaced in The Times in April, also declined to comment except to say that he considered the Inspector General’s report to be “opinions, not fact.”

“Obviously, Gen. Cook did not agree with (the report),” Adams said.

Marine Corps Inspector Gen. Hollis Davison said in an interview that he found it “curious” that many of his office’s findings were found to be unsubstantiated but said the decision was “clearly in (Cook’s) arena.” He declined further comment.

The Inspector General’s office opened its investigation into Adams’ actions after The Times reported that Adams had mixed personal and business travel in his flights aboard an El Toro-based C-12 Beechcraft. Several of the flights came shortly before Adams suspended two of his top aides in January over allegations that they had used base planes improperly.

One of the aides, Col. James E. Sabow, shot himself to death a few days after his dismissal in January. The other, Col. Joseph E. Underwood, was fired as chief of staff and forced to retire for taking planes on golfing jaunts and coercing a kickback from an aide.

The Inspector General’s probe into Adams’ conduct lasted two months, including several days of interviews with the general in Washington. The report was completed in June.

Among the findings:

* That as local troops shipped out for the Persian Gulf, Adams ignored problems at El Toro, such as abuses of power by his chief of staff, Underwood, and turned his attentions instead to flying and personal interests.

Adams took over at El Toro in September, 1990, overseeing 4,600 personnel and air bases at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma, Ariz. The Inspector General concluded that while the general prepared to take over this post, “Adams’ sole contribution to Operation Desert Shield . . . was to learn to fly the F-18"--even though the $31-million jet fighter was not even part of his command and “he had no chance of being required to fly” it.

* That Adams failed to tell military doctors that he was taking two medications from 1988 through 1991 for an irregular heart beat, including one drug that could affect flying performance. While Adams collected $2,000 in flight pay during this time while flying the F-18 Hornet, “he would have been grounded” had officials been notified as required, the report said.

The Inspector General’s office concluded that Adams’ conduct was “potentially dangerous, unnecessary and unwarranted.”

* That after moving into his personal quarters at El Toro in August, 1990, Adams authorized the purchase of $7,000 in cabinets, chairs, tables, a sofa and other items--all in addition to standard furnishings already provided by the government.

The Inspector General’s report questioned Adams’ claim that there was an “emergency” need to have the furniture quickly and said it appeared that the purchase was “structured to get around the system, in an effort to get the general what he wanted.”

Adams also “abused his authority and used poor judgment” in removing over $1,000 in furniture and silverware from a base guests’ quarters and taking them into his home, the report said.

* That Adams accepted $200 worth of champagne flutes and Moet Chandon champagne from Gary Hunt, senior vice president of the Irvine Co., and his wife, after Hunt was invited to the general’s wedding in December, 1990.

Officials at the Irvine Co. and the El Toro base have been locked in negotiations over the Marines’ plans to modify flight routes and noise levels around the base, an issue that affects the Irvine Co.'s hopes to develop land in the area.

Hunt has been heading those talks for the Irvine Co. Military officials said Hunt’s gift thus posed the appearance of a conflict and violated military policy on the acceptance of gifts of more than $25. Adams “should have realized the impropriety of his action,” the report said.

Both Adams and Hunt said they saw no conflict, however.

“It was a personal gift that had nothing to do with the Irvine Co. . . . and I’m really sort of offended by the fact that there’s (a perception of) impropriety in the fact of giving a wedding gift,” Hunt said.

* That Adams misused government planes on at least three occasions: stopping off in Florida to sign his divorce papers en route to a convention in Virginia; getting a plane to shuttle him to the base and back to Big Bear last year during a trip with his fiancee; and getting a plane to take him from Burbank back to Yuma after a family emergency in 1987.

Cook cited Adams only in connection with the Big Bear trip--for using the government plane improperly, falsifying an expense claim and lying to investigators. According to the Inspector General’s report, Adams claimed he had inspected the Marine recreational facility while at Big Bear with his fiancee, but there is no evidence that such an inspection took place.

The report accused Adams of “dereliction of duty” and “an extremely poor leadership example.”

It concluded that while military personnel prepared to wage war, Adams was bending rules at home, failing to identify and correct “serious problems” in the El Toro command structure and demonstrating that “government business was secondary” to his personal life.

One former senior officer in the Marine Corps speculated that Cook realized that a reprimand would probably mean the end of Adams’ career and decided not to embarrass him further by pressing more severe punishment and having other allegations be made public.

Inspector Gen. Davison said he intends to seek access to Cook’s findings and hopes the differences between the two can be “reconciled.” But officials said these questions may ultimately have to be resolved by the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., who will hear any appeal brought by Adams on the reprimand issued against him.

Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. James Vance said that under procedures of military discipline, the Inspector General’s office served as the military’s investigatory arm in the Adams case, but that office’s conclusions were “nothing more than recommendations.”

It was up to Cook, as Adams’ new commanding officer as of May, to decide whether to accept the findings and how or whether to discipline Adams, Vance said. He said he had not seen the Inspector General’s report and could not comment on it.

Times staff writer George Frank contributed to this report.