The Army on Thursday demoted by one rank a retired general who had affairs with the wives of four subordinates, a punishment that officials said would reduce his $75,000-a-year pension by about $9,000.
Maj. Gen. David Hale was demoted to brigadier general six months after a court-martial fined him $22,000 for eight violations of military law.
Hale, 53, a former top commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces and a decorated Vietnam veteran, was the first officer of his rank to be court-martialed since 1952 and the first Army general ever to be prosecuted in retirement.
Following a string of military sex scandals, Hale's case last year became a test of how severely the Army would treat infractions among high-ranking officers.
Shattered by a divorce, Hale had sought out the wives of subordinates whose own marriages seemed to be failing, witnesses in the case said. Although the sexual trysts were consensual, he ultimately pleaded guilty to seven counts of "conduct unbecoming an officer" and one count of making false official statements.
When the case ended in a guilty plea last March, some critics maintained that he should have received a prison sentence, as prosecutors had asked.
But Thursday's decision brought praise from several quarters, including Hale's first accuser and some members of Congress who have been advocates for women.
Donnamaria Carpino, Hale's first public accuser, said in a statement that she was pleased that the Army "has come to the stunning revelation that a court-martialed general should not retain all of his stars."
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who urged Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera to reduce Hale's rank in retirement, said: "This proportionate punishment sends a clear signal that the enforcement of regulations against sexual harassment must remain blind to rank or privilege." Praise also came from Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who has in the past faulted the military's handling of sex scandals.
But Hale, through his attorney, Frank Spinner, said that changing his rank after retirement was "an unprecedented abuse of power" that he would challenge in federal court. "To acquiesce would risk establishing a major legal precedent that will jeopardize the futures of all military retired officers," Spinner said in a statement.
He said that the Army was being "manipulated" by the accusers' "public media campaign built on outrageous lies and outright deception."
The demotion was ordered by Caldera based on the recommendation of a panel of three active-duty Army generals. They found, in an investigation, that Hale should be reduced in rank to brigadier general because that was the last rank in which he had performed satisfactorily.
The move cuts Hale's retirement pay by about one-eighth. Army officials said that, if Hale lives to the age of 80, as actuarial tables would suggest, he will have lost about $500,000 in retirement benefits, when interest is factored in.
The pay reduction is retroactive to March 1, 1998, the official date of Hale's retirement. A Pentagon accounting agency, the Finance and Accounting Service, will decide whether to seek reimbursement from Hale of $13,500--the difference between the pension he has received since he left active duty and what he would have gotten as a one-star retiree.
Some military justice experts said that punishments of generals are so rare it was difficult to comment on whether Hale's punishment is severe or lenient.
But one expert, John Jenkins, associate dean of the George Washington University Law School and a former naval officer, said that the outcome was "not unreasonable at all."
"As long as it was all consensual, a fine, versus confinement, is not an inappropriate sentence," he said.
Military law provides that military personnel remain liable for infractions that they commit on active duty even after they retire. Former Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer, who permitted Hale to retire last year, despite accusations then pending against him, cited this rule at the time.