SAN DIEGO — A Navy psychiatrist who formerly directed the drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit at Camp Pendleton faces a general court-martial today on a range of charges, including larceny, attempted sodomy and sexual harassment of clients and co-workers.
The controversy swirling around Cmdr. William J. Forte, 41, is only the latest at Camp Pendleton, which last week was rocked by the news that at least two dozen Marines are being investigated by military authorities for their alleged involvement in a gay pornography ring.
A general court-martial is the most serious of three levels of military trials and is usually reserved for capital offenses, such as murder, rape, manslaughter, arson, treason and mutiny. If convicted, Forte faces dismissal from the Navy and total forfeiture of pay and allowances.
Forte, who entered the Navy in March, 1982, arrived at Camp Pendleton in September, 1991, and was stationed at the base hospital as a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse among Navy and Marine Corps personnel.
In a pretrial hearing in April, a male sailor who had worked under Forte testified that the commander made crude and derogatory comments about women who were under his command.
Another sailor testified that Forte had made homosexual advances toward him, which Forte denies.
A Marine lance corporal, scheduled to testify against Forte during the court-martial, claims the psychiatrist attempted to sodomize him while the two were stationed at a naval hospital in Okinawa, Japan, in 1991, before Forte reported to Camp Pendleton.
One of four women who have filed complaints against Forte, but who asked not to be named, said in an interview: "He made comments about my sex life with my husband and made (crude) remarks."
Each of the four women has filed a complaint against the U.S. Marine Corps, seeking $60,000 in damages for statements allegedly made by Forte that they claim have harmed them personally and professionally. The complaint names the Marine Corps because the hospital is under its command.
Christopher J. Reeber, Forte's civilian attorney, called the accusations against his client a "gross overcharging of misconduct" and said counts pertaining to sexual harassment "are, at their worst, nothing more than statements made by him regarding third parties."
Forte faces 23 charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, 19 of maltreatment or sexual harassment, seven of making of false official statements, seven of larceny, six of opening someone else's mail, two of disrespect to a superior officer and one of attempted sodomy, said staff Sgt. Kelley S. Ramsey, spokeswoman for Camp Pendleton.
"The military has this habit of charging a single act three to four different ways" for what is only one violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Reeber said. "In this case, it's an unreasonable multiplication of charges."
He noted that the accusation of sexual harassment is "limited to speech alone," although Reeber conceded that one of Forte's former clients has accused him of violating medical confidentiality by disclosing statements made during private counseling sessions.
Reeber said that, in denying the claim of attempted sodomy, Forte questions why no complaint was made until January, more than a year after the incident allegedly took place at the physician's home in Japan.
The attorney said that many of Forte's problems were inevitable because of what he called the nature of the troubled program he inherited.
"This alcohol rehab unit has been described as dysfunctional for years by people at Camp Pendleton, so this guy (Forte) becomes the first black psychiatrist to be put in a position of leadership like that," Reeber said. "It became a situation that was totally untenable."
Marine Lt. Col. Charles Ryan, who is prosecuting the case for the military, declined to be interviewed.
Reeber charged that many of the counts against Forte are either redundant or without legal foundation.
"The larceny he's accused of involves a single prescription," Reeber said. "It stems from one person saying he removed 12 tablets from a medication prescribed for that one patient. Dr. Forte denies all of that."
Reeber said that Forte is accused of making "inappropriate and sexually suggestive" comments about women who worked in the rehab unit.
Pressed for examples, he said, "Comments like, 'If so-and-so lost 20 pounds, I might want to (have sex with) her.' Or comments about what it's like to (have sex) with a 62-year-old man."
Forte will admit to making some of the comments, Reeber said, but noted that "most were fabricated, while others were taken grossly out of context."
"But had he made them, do they constitute sexual harassment?" Reeber asked.
Officials at Camp Pendleton declined comment until after the court-martial is concluded.