An article published on June 22 on NJ.com chronicles the curious case of SSgt. Mario Manago, a 12-year Air Force veteran with a strong service record who was recently tried and convicted at court-martial for the offense of being six minutes late to a meeting with his commander. The court-imposed punishment left Manago’s career intact, but his commander had already enacted an administrative demotion that required Manago to be discharged from the Air Force.
This apparent hunting of an individual airman raised red flags across social media outlets where the service’s culture is routinely discussed.
In the article, Manago’s attorney claimed that he had been prevented from attending the meeting on time due to competing mission demands preventing him from departing his duty section. Implicit in the claim is that Manago would have been in trouble for something else had he made it to the meeting on time, meaning he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
But there was another claim that grabbed our attention: that Manago was court-martialed in retaliation for blowing the whistle on maltreatment. Manago says that his career was moving along swimmingly until he joined the McGuire’s 305th Aerial Port Squadron (APS), at which point he was treated as an outsider and hounded more aggressively than his teammates over penny ante infractions after the squadron chain of command turned against him.
This is a serious claim, so we reached out to Manago to open a dialogue. He has since provided us with every piece of documentation pertinent to his case. After anaylzing these documents, it is fair to say that there is a lot of information in them relevant to discussions of public accountability, the culture of today’s Air Force, toxic leadership, and most crucially, the noticeably corrupt conduct of officials charged with maintaining fairness and justice in Air Force organizations.
We’ll have much more to say about what Manago’s case reveals on these broad themes in the days and weeks ahead, but for now we will focus in narrowly on one particular detail of the Manago story — one that absolutely damns the Air Force’s broken Inspector General (IG) complaint resolution process.
In February of 2016, SSgt. Manago was transferred into the 305th APS. Within a few months, he had run afoul of the squadron’s leadership and been disciplined a few times for minor infractions. Manago felt he was being unfairly targeted and that the administrative punishments dealt to him were inappropriately severe. In July of 2016, he wrote a detailed memorandum to his commander expressing concern that the commander and his agents had inappropriately included old documentation from previous assignments in deciding how severely to punish Manago over perceived missteps. Manago asked for a meeting with the commander to discuss the content of the memo.
It was this meeting — requested by Manago — to which he was six minutes late. As a result of his being late, Lt. Col. Eric Quidley offered Manago non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ.
Manago felt the Art. 15 offer wasn’t about the meeting at all, but was an act of reprisal. He felt Quidley was attempting to punish him for writing the July 22 memo which made official, in writing, the way he’d been treated as a member of the squadron. Manago theorized that by putting his maltreatment in writing, he had pushed Quidley into a position where the only way Quidley could protect his own skin was to make Manago out to be a criminal malcontent. This, Manago believed, was the reason he was offered a choice between accepting punishment or being sent to court-martial.
Armed with this theory, he did what we teach our airmen to do when they feel the chain of command is abusing authority to protect itself at their expense: he filed a reprisal complaint with the IG.
The IG promptly dismissed Manago’s claim, with less than one month elapsing between the office receiving it and issuing a final memorandum. The dismissal was later relied upon by McGuire spokesman Shaun Eagan in his public defense of the Air Force’s decision to take an NCO court over six minutes of tardiness. From the NJ.com article:
Here’s the problem with this explanation: the IG in this case behaved inappropriately, and should himself be investigated. The complaint was not properly investigated, something which should have caught the attention of McGuire’s senior leaders.
In a review of the memo dismissing Manago’s complaint, JQP discovered that the complaint was obviously and grossly mishandled. The IG relied on improper rationale to declare that Manago’s complaint did not meet the threshold for a complete investigation. The complaint was basically swept aside without an actual look into whether reprisal occurred.
Here’s the operative excerpt from the memo, dated November 2016:
The IG concludes that Manago did indeed make a protected communication, but that his commander did not threaten or enact an Unfavorable Personnel Action because … an Art. 15 is “a process, not an action.” This is absurd. It is the work of amateur clowns. It would be laughable if it had not been used as part of a process that ended an airman’s career.
There is no rational universe where the offering of punishment does not constitute the threat of punishment. The IG defied the plain-language meaning of its own regulation in order to find a way to dismiss this complaint. This is corruption, plain and simple. It’s the IG riding flank for the chain of command rather than following the facts where they lead. Under this analysis, the only way an airman could ever prevail in a reprisal complaint is by accepting punishment, which would then be seen as an admission of guilt that would likely be used to nullify the reprisal complaint. This leaves airmen without a reprisal remedy, and green-lights commanders to engage in reprisal without fear of accountability. It’s a recipe for command abuse.
Just to set this IG straight on how this is supposed to work, there are four steps to the acid test for reprisal:
Did the military member make or prepare a communication protected by statute?
Was an unfavorable personnel action taken or threatened, or was a favorable action withheld or threatened to be withheld, following the protected communication?
Did the official or officials responsible for taking, withholding, or threatening the personnel action know about the protected communication?
Does the evidence establish that the personnel action would have been taken, withheld, or threatened if the protected communication had not been made?
In this case, questions 1 and 2 are clearly answered “yes.” Manago wrote a protected memo (which the IG stipulates) and he was subsequently threatened with punishment (which the IG gets totally wrong). Question 3 would also be answered “yes” given that the protected communication was sent to Quidley himself. This leaves only the response to Question 4, which would require the IG to actually develop substantive evidence and determine what motivated Quidley to court-martial an NCO for being six minutes late to a meeting.
In other words, it would require the IG to do its job. Review Quidley’s emails. Question him and his advisors. Question Manago. Build a picture of what occurred. It may be revealed that there was no reprisal. But it may not, and treating the question seriously is the minimum duty owed by an IG.
I’ve been writing for years about how the IG has been employed to protect the chain of command rather than protect all airmen. This is a particularly clear example of IG corruption that doesn’t even bother to mask itself.
At minimum, Manago’s reprisal complaint must be re-booted and given a fair treatment. More than that, the Air Force needs to investigate the McGuire IG, paying particular attention to any communications between the 305th APS and the IG while this complaint was live. Whatever anyone thinks of SSgt. Mario Manago, we owe our airmen better than a lazy and corrupt hand-wave to serious complaint.