On the eve of their interrogations in the Tailhook investigation, Lt. Col. Peter K. Solecki, the Marine Corps equivalent of a county public defender, assembled 75 to 100 Marine officers at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to give them some advice.
"What you want to do from now on is be cooperative and unevasive, even if you're going to shut up," Solecki said during the August, 1992, briefing, "because if you get tagged for being uncooperative, then you're dead meat. . . .
"Can you find yourself serving duty up in Adak, Alaska, with the Navy squadron or something? Yes," Solecki said. "Essentially, should you be sending out your resume to United Airlines if you are going to refuse to talk? I think so."
He further advised the Marines against exercising their right to take attorneys to their interviews, unless they wanted to risk being labeled uncooperative by Pentagon investigators.
According to a legal memo obtained by The Times: "The advice given by then-Regional Defense Counsel Lt. Col. Solecki to cooperate may come back to haunt him. (A lieutenant colonel) taped the whole thing."
The statement is rather prophetic.
Several attorneys representing Marines suspected of Tailhook offenses now say Solecki's advice was dead wrong and rather surprising considering he was the Corps' top defense lawyer for the western United States.
"This was an abdication of the defense counsel function," said Charles W. Gittins, an attorney with Williams & Connolly in Washington, who is handling two Tailhook cases. "It was cooperate and be railroaded. I am shocked at the lack of candid and correct advice."
It would have been more appropriate, defense attorneys say, to have at least encouraged the Marines to seek initial advice from either a military or civilian lawyer so they could make informed decisions about the best way to proceed for their specific situations.
Marines, like other citizens, have a right to remain silent, to take attorneys to interrogations, and to refuse lie detector tests without fear of administrative reprisals or harassment for exercising those rights, they said.
There have been examples, defense attorneys say, of Tailhook investigators putting inaccurate information and conclusions in their interrogation reports--something that could have been avoided by having a lawyer present.
Already, one defense attorney, retired Marine Lt. Col. Michael L. Powell, has said he will try to use the Solecki briefing to suppress admissions later made by officers he is representing. Powell contends that Solecki said things, which later proved false, about some acts that would not be punishable.
To hear Solecki tell it, he only wanted to brief scores of Marine officers about the harsh reality of being caught in the fast-closing Tailhook scandal--a controversy of epic proportions.
"There was a national spotlight on this, and there was tremendous political pressure," Solecki told The Times. "Things are going to happen. People are going to get screwed. That's the way it is. Idealism was out the window. That and a quarter, two bucks today, will get you a cup of coffee in this thing."
Solecki, who has since retired and is practicing law in San Diego, said he held the meeting in an attempt to keep the situation under control after allegations were made that officers were clamming up and investigators were resorting to heavy-handed tactics at Miramar Naval Air Station. At the time, he said, both investigators and those sought for questioning were being cautioned about their actions.
"The pilots were scared and hostile," he said of the meeting. "They felt that they were being raked over the coals."
Despite Solecki's position, the following passage and others like it, taken from a transcript of the advisory session, are being scrutinized by defense attorneys:
"Hey, no one gives a s--- about due process at this point. No one cares," Solecki said at the briefing. "By the time you get to the point where you're worried about your rights, it's all over. Forget about that now. It doesn't make any difference. Don't start crying about your rights."
Solecki told The Times that the vast majority of Marines at the advisory session did not need attorneys and those facing serious charges ultimately obtained counsel.
"I never intimated to those in serious trouble that they not get a lawyer," Solecki said. "I would give them the same advice today. That is, you must make a choice. If you just drank and whooped it up, then you should think about cooperating. If you are in serious trouble, then you should think about remaining silent."
But Powell and other defense attorneys say Solecki's advisory session will only fuel the on-going debate within the Marine Corps over whether the legal defense command is a strong, independent advocate for the accused or simply a "paper tiger" under the control of prosecution-oriented commanders.
"What happened at the meeting did not do the Marine Corps defense command any good," Powell said. "What he did was shift the burden of proof to the aviators from the military. It was not the type of advice that should have been given."