A proposal to strengthen safeguards for whistleblowers in the California National Guard passed a major step Tuesday as former service members testified at a state Senate committee about what they called a “rampant” culture of retaliation that reaches the top of the organization.
Among them was former Maj. Connie Wong, who said she and others suffered reprisals after speaking out against the head of the California Military Department, which oversees the air and army branches of the Guard.
“Lives have been ruined,” Wong told lawmakers. “Once you report something, you’re guaranteed to be retaliated against. You’ll be removed from your job and eventually kicked out.”
The testimony came as the California Senate Veterans Affairs Committee considered a bill proposed by state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) to strengthen protections for whistleblowers in the Guard. The committee cleared the way for the proposal to move to the next step of procedural hurdles.
Umberg’s proposal would require the Military Department’s inspector general to report to the governor instead of the adjutant general who leads the organization and requires the inspector general to investigate complaints.
State Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) asked the panel of witnesses to explain what about the current inspector general system is broken. Wong replied that she lived through it: “99.99% of IG complaints are never substantiated, ever, because you have the fox watching the henhouse,” Wong said. Soon after, she abruptly left the hearing.
John Haramalis, a retired colonel who is the legislative director of the National Guard Assn. of California, told lawmakers that about 90% of reprisal complaints are closed without investigation.
He himself sued Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, the head of the Military Department, three times — unsuccessfully.
After a heated debate, the committee struck down a contentious provision that would have allowed whistleblowers to sue for economic damages.
Umberg said he planned to keep pursuing it, alluding during the hearing to a Times investigation that detailed whistleblower complaints and other misconduct allegations at the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno. The Times reported that some of the complaints alleged a coverup of an incident in which someone urinated in a female Guard member’s boots.
“If someone urinates in someone else’s boots for the purpose of intimidating them and then it’s reported that there’s an issue with respect to the command … and they’re retaliated against, the person who does the retaliation, merely because they’re in a uniform, should not be given any greater protections than a civilian,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, the Military Department’s No. 2 commander, attended the hearing with two other officers. He declined to comment.
At least two complaints generated from the 144th Wing stemmed from the March 2015 incident in which Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda found that someone at the Fresno base had urinated in the boots she had left in a bathroom overnight.
The incident and its aftermath fueled suspicions that high-ranking officers mishandled two investigations to find the perpetrator and tried to bury the episode to protect someone who may have been involved, according to interviews and Guard records obtained by The Times.
Pineda and Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, a pilot who spoke up for her, filed complaints.
In the wake of the Times investigation, the inspector general of the Military Department found that a culture of reprisal afflicted the wing. The problems led to the recent ouster of the air Guard’s top commander, Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, and two high-ranking officers at the Fresno base.
The new commander of the air Guard, Brig. Gen. Greg Jones, was instructed to work to “restore the confidence and trust in the IG system” at the Fresno base.
The Military Department could not provide complete numbers on alleged reprisals in California, so it’s difficult to quantify the scope of the problem, including whether it has been growing.
But Times interviews with current and former Guard members and an examination of internal documents show that complaints go well beyond Fresno and extend to the army side as well. They’ve come from fighter pilots, a top military prosecutor, Special Forces officers and a colonel who hoped to head the organization.
The Military Department declined to comment on the allegations and did not offer a position on Umberg’s bill.
Dwight Stirling, a reserve judge advocate in the Guard, sent a letter to Umberg supporting the bill, including the provision that would allow service members to sue.
Stirling alleges he was targeted for investigation after he reported that a handful of military lawyers in the Guard were not licensed to practice law in the state. He said he never was given an opportunity to challenge allegations against him that led to a reprimand.
“Unfortunately, the organizational culture is largely grounded on fear, a dynamic where subordinates’ careers are casually destroyed by superiors for either deviating from the party line or reporting their boss’ misconduct,” he wrote. “The only way to create a truly healthy organizational culture is by allowing whistleblowers to file civil suits in the wake of retaliation.”