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Just 1 Tailhook Marine Faces Assault Charge : Military: Memo prepared by Marine Corps lawyers provides glimpse into strategy for the prosecution.

July 26, 1993|DAN WEIKEL and GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Nineteen Marine Corps officers are facing discipline in the Tailhook affair, but only one stands accused of criminal assault after a lengthy Pentagon investigation that uncovered 83 alleged attacks on women, according to a legal memorandum about the controversy.

The Marine Corps intends to discipline many, if not all, of the Marines implicated in the scandal, forcing the senior-most into retirement while slapping the junior officers with reprimands and $1,000 fines.

But two officers--a former El Toro pilot charged with indecent assault and a lieutenant colonel who is an ROTC instructor--have apparently been singled out for harsher punishment, according to the memo being circulated among some defense attorneys representing the accused officers.

The record, which was obtained by The Times on the condition that the source's name not be disclosed, states that the Corps wants to channel the 17 other officers--about half from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station--into confidential "non-judicial proceedings" in order "to keep the media out of it."

Prepared within the Marine Corps legal unit, the lengthy memorandum provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the way the Marines are handling Tailhook prosecutions and details, for the first time, potentially important issues for defense attorneys.

Among other things, the memo addresses case flaws, the possibility that the Corps trampled on the legal rights of suspected officers, and the likelihood that defense counsel will attack reportedly conflicting statements by Lt. Paula Coughlin, the Navy helicopter pilot whose complaints about misconduct at the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention triggered a social revolution in the military.

"The amazing thing is that after all the heartburn, time and money, they cannot pin one assault on any Marine," the record concludes after summarizing the pending disciplinary cases. About 2,900 people were interviewed during the Pentagon's Tailhook investigation, including 298 Marines.

The five-page, single-spaced memorandum also contains evaluations of evidence and information that surfaced in frank discussions about Tailhook between Lt. Col. Geoff Lyons, a high-ranking Marine defense lawyer, and Maj. Phil Seymour, a member of the Corps' squad of Tailhook prosecutors.

Seymour, who is stationed at Quantico, Va., and Lyons, who is the regional defense counsel based at Camp Pendleton, declined to comment because regulations prohibit public discussion of pending cases.

The author of the memo is unknown. Sources, who requested anonymity, said it was written by someone in the Marine Corps legal defense command. Lyons said he did not personally write, or order the preparation of, any official memos or reports for distribution to those handling Tailhook cases. He cautioned that the record might be filled with opinion, speculation and hearsay.

Warrant Officer Robert C. Jenks, a Marine spokesman who is handling Tailhook inquires by the media, declined to discuss the memorandum. In general, he said, the Corps is handling the cases legally, fairly and efficiently.

The scandal grew out of the September, 1991, annual convention of the Tailhook Assn. at the Las Vegas Hilton, where the Pentagon concluded that 83 women and seven men were physically or sexually assaulted during the three-day gathering of aviators. The association takes its name from the device that helps brake planes landing on aircraft carriers, and most of the group's members are Navy and Marine aviators.

After a lengthy investigation by the Defense Department, about 120 Navy officers were identified as probable wrongdoers, along with 19 Marines, many of whom were formerly stationed at El Toro. According to the defense memo, charges under consideration for the Marines range from dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer to criminal offenses, such as indecent assault, adultery and sodomy.

Of the 19 Marines mentioned in the memo, eight are currently on duty in Southern California, including El Toro. Others are assigned to bases throughout the United States and Japan. The memo names five lieutenants, five captains, two majors, six lieutenant colonels and one colonel, whose promotion to brigadier general has been stalled by the Tailhook controversy.

Seventeen are facing hearings known as Article 15s, non-public hearings called "non-judicial punishment," the memorandum states. Two are facing Article 32s, a grand jury-style proceeding that will investigate the evidence against them. It is a step toward a court-martial.

The number of suspects and charges, however, is subject to change, considering the Pentagon has until September to bring new cases. Defense attorneys also say that formal charges against some of the 19 suspects have not been filed yet.

Jenks said four Marines have been punished so far with a $1,000 fine, official reprimands, or non-punitive letters of caution. One case has been referred to the military's equivalent of a grand jury proceeding.

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