Disgraced 2-star Sounds Off on Miley Gate, Raises New Questions

In this file photo from Jan. 7, 2015, Maj. Gen. Mike Keltz, 19th Air Force commander (2nd from right), discusses current issues around the Air Force with Col. Brian Hastings (far left) and other members of the 47th Flying Training Wing leadership team in the wing conference room at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Photo: Air Force, Steven R. Doty.
In this file photo from Jan. 7, 2015, Maj. Gen. Mike Keltz, 19th Air Force commander (2nd from right), discusses current issues around the Air Force with Col. Brian Hastings (far left) and other members of the 47th Flying Training Wing leadership team in the wing conference room at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Photo: Air Force, Steven R. Doty.

It’s not every day a former general shows up to JQP blog to re-litigate his prior decisions on justice issues. But that’s evidently the course chosen by retired Maj. Gen. Mike Keltz, whose apparent comments on a recent blog shed new light on controversial issues of due process and basic fairness at the heart of unsubstantiated drug allegations that grounded three Laughlin Air Force Base instructor pilots for 18 months before being thrown out after an Inspector General (IG) review.

Someone commenting under the handle “Rheinhart Saxon” and representing himself to be Keltz left a 950-word response to the article posted last Friday. The piece detailed a letter from Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) in which he demanded answers from Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, as to why one of the Laughlin pilots remained sidelined from his primary duties despite the IG findings. The “Rheinhart Saxon” handle corresponds to the name of a consulting firm where Keltz serves as President. A subsequent email exchange confirmed the retired officer to be the source of the remarks.

Keltz, as a refresher, was forced to retire after just seven months in command of 19th Air Force. The trigger prematurely ending his previously exemplary career was a racist remark Keltz made during a public disciplinary hearing involving one of the officers caught up in what I’ve termed the “witch hunt” at Laughlin.

In that hearing, an officer was defending himself against charges that he’d known about but failed to report an unprofessional relationship involving another instructor pilot. As the hearing progressed, Keltz came unmoored from his duty as an impartial finder of fact and began actively prosecuting the accused. He even produced new evidence that had not been shared in advance. This was a violation of Air Force Instruction 51-202, which provides in paragraph 3.5 that

“member and his counsel have a right to examine all statements and other evidence that the commander has examined and intends to rely upon in arriving at a decision to impose punishment.”

Pounding away relentlessly at his hapless subject, Keltz descended into a public meltdown, telling the officer that he looked “drunker than 10,000 Indians” in a random, out-of-context photo Keltz had independently harvested and brought to the hearing.

The tirade and the remark stunned the sizable crowd in attendance, to include family members of the accused. Multiple complaints were filed with the Air Force by members of audience offended by Keltz’s specific remarks and his general approach to the process. As a result of his derailing, the Article 15 proceedings against the officer were terminated (though they were later re-filed — more on that in a future article). Keltz was permitted to retire rather than face accountability for his actions in the case.

But, as his recent blog comment demonstrates, Mike Keltz was deeply involved in much more than the single hearing that drove an untimely stake through the heart of his career. He was also closely supervising Col. Brian Hastings — the former Laughlin wing commander who reprimanded three officers on suspicion of drug use after he misunderstood texts on their private cellphones — on a range of other disciplinary matters. Keltz remains invested in his prior decisions and is willing to publicly defend them.

But that doesn’t make him right.

What follows is a re-transmission of select excerpts from the “Rheinhart Saxon” blog comment, with my response and analysis interspersed.

“Tony, you don’t have your facts straight and are dead wrong … again. Please stay in Law School and retake Greek Logic 101, pass it and then get your facts straight before you start writing again. The pabulum you’re spewing needs to be immolated on the pyre of idiocy.”

Mike, the facts are what they are, and you’re not entitled to your own. Moreover, a person need not have legal training to notice the clear injustices and manifest due process violations over which you presided in the waning days of your career. A passing grade in 8th grade Civics will suffice.

Logic, a branch of philosophy concerned with valid reasoning, is not a formal part of legal education (nor is the salad bar variant you’ve concocted, “Greek Logic”). But worry not, my reasoning skills are just fine. Yours may need some work. At least judging by the insipid yet amusing collection of syntax at the trailing end of your formulation. In the writin’ bidness we call that “pablum” … without the gratuitous “u,” which in your case, symbolizes “unsat.”

[Aside: please note the weakness of the writing skills on display here. This is, unfortunately, somewhat representative of the overall group of USAF senior officers … a result of decades-long socialization in a muzzle-affixed culture that informally prohibits the free expression of critical thought for publication. This prevents the cycle of challenge and growth that should describe the trajectory of senior military strategists].

“The damage you have done to the leadership teams and [their] families is horrendous and you need to be held accountable.”

It took me a moment to gather myself for this response because I was gently sobbing in empathy for the poor, neglected members of the elite senior leadership element too busy performing self-pity keg stands to notice the irrecuperable damage they’ve inflicted on the Laughlin community, its families, and the broader cohort of airmen who serve the Air Force.

But then I realized the crystalline perfection your comment when delivered to the appropriate recipient. To that end, go find a mirror, stare into it until you catch your own gaze, and repeat your own words, replacing “the leadership teams” with “those who trusted you to lead them.”

Now … it’s tempting, and might be entertaining, to go on spouting snark-enriched linguistic critiques of the entire comment. But, as Mike Keltz and I have privately agreed, constructive disagreement is much preferable to schoolyard squabbling, especially with the lives of airmen and the health of the service we both love hanging in the balance.

In that spirit, here’s some additional analysis of the substance of his comment, such as it is.

“they were neither falsely accused nor were the allegations based upon unfounded suspicions. It’s utterly preposterous the Air Force would take administrative action on just a couple of ‘Miley Cyrus lyrics’ …”

It is preposterous that the Air Force would do so. It’s even more preposterous that the Air Force did do so. An IG investigation has found the allegations unsubstantiated. In America, that means they’re not guilty, and that makes the charges unfounded, along with the suspicions that gave rise to them.

“As was described at the Article 15 Public Appearances, there were dozens of texts that described drug use, using drugs to loosen up women and prescription abuse.”

There were no Article 15 hearings pertaining to these charges. Here, Keltz is conflating the false drug charges — which resulted in reprimands now being rescinded — with other charges and other proceedings.

This conflation provides a useful clue about how he and Col. Hastings went wrong: they began viewing everyone under the umbrella of general suspicion of any wrongdoing as part of a monolithic bloc of “bad culture” in need of eradication, and didn’t let a lack of evidence or the pesky principle of impartiality get in their way. The texts Keltz is fixated on were private communications between friends citing pop culture references in a joking manner. They were never accused of sexual improprieties as he implies and all passed voluntary drug tests. The IG found them clean of any drug related misconduct.

“The legal issue is whether the Wing Leadership could get corroborating evidence to send this to a court martial.”

This statement is astonishing. It utterly misapprehends how the law works. It’s not about whether a commander can “get corroborating evidence.” It’s first a question of what the evidence available actually demonstrates. In the case of the officer discussed in Hunter’s letter to the Air Force, the evidence was too weak to sustain the offer of nonjudicial punishment, and was ultimately too weak to sustain the reprimand that was attempted.

That’s not surprising given that neither his home nor his car were ever searched by the Air Force. Think about that. If the chain of command seriously suspected this individual of using and distributing drugs, it would be something like prosecutorial malpractice to not obtain warrants for his home, vehicle, and computer. The fact it was never attempted means one of two things: either the prosecutor and commander didn’t think there was enough probable cause to sustain a warrant, or they were afraid of the implications of searching and finding nothing. Either way, the inability to amass enough evidence to go to court should have been the end of the matter.

The fact that a 2-star general responsible to convene courts-martial and conduct justice on behalf of the service would have this underdeveloped an appreciation of the process is alarming. But this isn’t even the most shocking thing Keltz said.

“And [at] every point along this investigation, the commanders had the full advice and concurrence of the entire USAF legal system.”

If this is true, the entire investigation was likely tainted by conflicts of interest and unlawful command influence, and should have been summarily thrown out in its entirety on those grounds alone.

It’s time for Congress to hold hearings to give the Chief of Staff, Secretary, and Judge Advocate General of the Air Force a chance to explain why the legal advisors of senior officials at major command and Air Staff levels were permitted to review matters upon which they might be (and in this case, were) asked to subsequently weigh in during appeals and requests for redress.

The exchange of inappropriate private text messages between fellow officers is not a legal issue at all. The texts should never have become official knowledge and should have been disregarded the instant reasonable contrary explanations and evidence proved them harmless. To the extent they became the business of the chain of command, this is Flight Commander or maybe Squadron Commander business. Why was the full weight of the Air Force devoted to this issue? What chance did these junior officers have for a fair process given they were facing off against the entire USAF prosecutorial apparatus?

Lots of questions here. Congress should consider including in next year’s defense authorization the requirement for a holistic review of the Air Force legal system by the Government Accountability Office. Here’s more evidence supporting that proposition:

“Can you imagine if the commanders had laughed off the evidence as ‘just joking’ and how more vicious your attacks would have been if we’d had an accident, found drugs in the toxicology reports or had a sexual assault after someone slipped the victim some ‘Molly.'”

These are interesting thoughts, but they are totally inappropriate factors in any decision model for an objective finder of fact. This is Keltz essentially admitting to politicizing the hunting of these officers for fear of unfavorable media or political backlash if something were to go wrong. It’s not a matter of whether they were actually culpable for wrongdoing, but what risks the Air Force might be taking if it obeyed the rules of evidence and due process. His focus is not on objectively distilling guilt or innocence, but on protecting the chain of command.

This is basically an admission that the service will only obey due process when doing so coincides with perceived institutional interests … as well as an admission that Keltz and his gang punished these officers not for what they did, but what they might do in the future. Seldom is it possible to glimpse someone with less of an idea what he is doing yet more confidence that he’s doing everything right.

This is not me pretending commanders have an easy task. Having been one, I know better. In a sense commanders are trying to play both quasi-prosecutorial and quasi-judicial roles in cases like this. But with all that power comes an elevated responsibility to refrain from premature judgment, to genuinely weigh and remain open to evidence, to reject politicization, to speak truth to power, and to remain tightly tethered to ethical moorings. The Air Force does not do a good enough job educating commanders on these responsibilities, as this case makes painfully evident.

“Everyone knows that taking a drug test months or in the case of ecstasy, even days after the alleged activity is a total wash.”

First of all, this is just incorrect. Second, even if it were correct, that doesn’t change anything. If you can’t support your suspicions with corroborating evidence, you have a duty to refrain from punishment based upon them, no matter how reasonable you suspect them to be. But again, given that the suspects never had their homes or cars searched and that not a single witness or article of paraphernalia supports the hypothesis of drug use, your suspicions were not reasonable. The IG agreed.

“The IG Inquiry did not exonerate the three instructors, you have your facts wrong again. It’s painfully obvious that you didn’t even see the report … [a]nd if I were a betting man and in this case I’d say it was a sure bet, the report probably came back supporting the Laughlin Commander’s administrative actions.”

I agree that the failure to substantiate drug use doesn’t mean someone is innocent. In North Korea or the former Soviet Union. Here in the United States, the presumption of innocence is still the law of the land as well as a prominent and unquestioned expression of collective morality baked into the bedrock of our way of life. We understand it means we might occasionally allow someone culpable to slip through the cracks, but we’d rather see that happen than give government the power to reach into the liberties of citizens further than the evidence allows. Air Force commanders have a duty to affirm this principle, not to second-guess, discard, or nullify it.

But something else about Keltz’s input here is unsettling. By his comments, he’s implying that he — a private citizen — has seen an IG report that hasn’t even been released to the Congressmen who requested it or the individuals implicated. If that’s true, the Air Force — specifically, whichever of Keltz’s cronies forwarded him the report — has some explaining to do. Giving an IG report to someone not entitled to see it is a potential violation of a host of privacy and privilege safeguards the Air Force usually protects to a fault. Why someone seemingly made an exception for a retired general who has since taken to social media to employ the resulting knowledge to publicly advance the Air Force’s official position is a curious — and indeed serious — question.

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There’s much more in the wayward comment. Had I the inclination to bat a ball of yarn, I might take its author to task on more of his baseless and misguided rhetoric. But I’m less concerned with our personal disagreements and more concerned with seeing the Air Force do the right thing by its airmen. No matter what, we cannot allow the service to obliterate individual fairness for the sake of protecting political or institutional interests. Nor can commanders be permitted to wrongly punish subordinates for the sake of looking tough or being seen cleaning up a “bad culture.” 

One thing I will say for Keltz … at least he’s willing to speak out, even if it’s ill-advised to speak out in the particular manner he’s chosen to do it. It’s more than can be said for the cowards who are overflowing with privately uttered opinions but unwilling to offer public views that allow them to be held accountable.

But … as admirable as it is that he’s willing to stand by his decisions … those decisions were quite often dead wrong. Attempting to defend those decisions now — even after the IG has admitted mistakes were made — is an attempt to compound injustices already grotesque enough in their original form.

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