WASHINGTON (AP) -- The secretary of the Army said Tuesday he will have the final say on whether a disgraced brigadier general at the center of a sexual misconduct case retires at a lower rank with sharply reduced retirement pay.
Facing outraged House Democrats, John McHugh said the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair remains open a week after he was spared prison and sentenced to a reprimand and a $20,000 fine.
"The process is still ongoing. I have to make final certifications about rank and retirement," McHugh told the Armed Services Committee.
McHugh could bust Sinclair down to a lower rank which would mean a significantly reduced pension.
Sinclair had a three-year affair with a female captain who accused him of twice forcing her to perform oral sex on him. In a courtroom at Fort Bragg, N.C., the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division was originally brought up on sexual assault charges punishable by life in prison.
He was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on such charges.
Sinclair pleaded guilty to lesser charges of adultery and conducting inappropriate relationships with two others by asking them for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit email.
His sentence of a reprimand and a fine prompted an outcry in Congress that showed no signs of abating during the hearing.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who along with Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio spearheaded changes to the law to deal with sexual assault in the ranks, called the outcome in the case "shocking" and complained about a "toxic military culture."
"These series of incidents ... raises the very serious question of whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice can be fairly called an instrument of justice and whether an organization where rank and the pecking order created by rank can ever rise above the dictates of deference that rank demands," Tsongas told McHugh and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the chief of staff of the Army.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., offered a long list of the charges for which she said Sinclair pleaded guilty.
"This is a sexual predator," she asserted. "For a sexual predator to gain this rank and given a slap on the wrist suggests that the system doesn't work."
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., questioned whether the general "gets off the hook."
Earlier this month, the Pentagon narrowly prevailed in turning back an effort to strip commanders of the authority to prosecute cases, especially those related to sexual assault, and hand the job to seasoned military lawyers. The questions and outrage among several lawmakers on the House panel indicated that the military will face an even stronger congressional effort to change the military justice system later this year when lawmakers begins work on the defense policy bill.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chief sponsor of the legislation to overhaul the military justice system, has vowed to push ahead with her effort.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who served in the Navy, suggested one way to address the issue of sexual assault would be to take the authority away from commanders.
"In the military the first thing you could do is to remove from the commanding officers the authority about whether a rapist will be tried or not," Carter said in an interview Monday night on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman."
"I was a submarine officer. I was qualified to command submarines. And it's almost impossible for commanding officers to bring to justice a rapist, because it reflects adversely on his capability as a military commander if sexual abuse is taking place in his company or his battalion."
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he had tapped Navy Rear Adm. Margaret "Peg" Klein to serve as senior adviser for military professionalism, reporting to Hagel on matters related to military ethics, character, and leadership.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
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