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Gov. Evers to release findings of investigation into National Guard's handling of sexual assault

GOV TONY EVERS (copy) (copy)

“As should be the case in all workplaces, the service members of the Wisconsin National Guard deserve a work environment free from sexual assault and harassment, fear of retaliation for reporting sexual assault and harassment when it occurs, and inadequate accountability for perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment,” Evers said. 

Findings of a sweeping federal investigation into how the Wisconsin National Guard handles allegations of sexual assault and harassment will be released to the public within days, Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday.

Evers, in a letter to legislative leaders, said he plans to release the findings after the guard’s chief, Adjutant General Donald Dunbar, reviews the report this weekend.

The governor said soon after, he will announce next steps he plans to take to “ensure that our men and women in uniform work in an environment free from sexual assault, sexual harassment and retaliation.”

The investigation was called for by Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Madison, after a series of complaints from National Guard Army and Air Force members in the state alleging that investigations were conducted improperly, largely kept in-house and those who reported problems faced retribution.

The report, produced by federal investigators from the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations in Arlington, Virginia, includes interviews with 78 National Guard personnel, reviews of more than 1,100 documents and visits to 10 military installations statewide. The bureau is a federal administrative agency run by the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force that oversees National Guards units nationwide.

In a letter to legislative leaders from both parties, Ever said his office received the report on Nov. 25 and has held it until Dunbar could be reached and briefed on its findings. Dunbar was in Afghanistan over Thanksgiving and is slated to be briefed on the report on Saturday, according to Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff.

One federal investigator working on the report called the state’s handling of one case “an absolute train wreck.”

The investigator, who made the comment while interviewing the victim in the case, said that the state’s attempt to prosecute a soldier for sexual assault through its military justice process was “not the only case that was a train wreck in the Wisconsin National Guard,” according to an audio recording of the interview obtained by the Cap Times.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement Thursday he was shocked by what’s become public so far about the handling of investigations. He said Evers must respond to the issue.

“It is the responsibility of the Department of Military Affairs to keep the brave men and women serving our state safe,” Fitzgerald said in his statement. “Clearly changes must be made.”

The federal investigation was launched after Air Force Inspector General Jacqueline Albright in a Nov. 16, 2018 letter told Baldwin she referred the request to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and in a Jan. 9, 2018 letter, Albright said the office was conducting a review of allegations made by Master Sgt. Jay Ellis, which accused guard leadership of retaliation.

Evers in a statement said he is inviting National Guard investigators to Wisconsin in light of the allegations.

“As should be the case in all workplaces, the service members of the Wisconsin National Guard deserve a work environment free from sexual assault and harassment, fear of retaliation for reporting sexual assault and harassment when it occurs, and inadequate accountability for perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment,” Evers said.

Legislative leaders have been invited to a Monday briefing on the report. Fitzgerald and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, plan to attend. Other leaders did not immediately say whether they would participate.

In a four-page letter to Fitzgerald in March, Dunbar defended the guard's policies and procedures.

"The Wisconsin National Guard has taken numerous steps in recent years to protect service members and to prevent assault or harassment from taking place," Dunbar wrote to Fitzgerald. "We have also made it a priority to investigate allegations and, when those allegations are substantiated, prosecute and punish offenders."

Dunbar said the guard has a zero tolerance policy and that "our leaders work actively to foster a culture of trust that encourages reporting and seeks to ensure that victims feel comfortable coming forward."

Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in February asked Dunbar for a review of policies and possible changes to improve the guard's procedures after he met with a female soldier in January who said she was harassed by a fellow soldier who wasn't punished.

Fitzgerald said then he still has concerns following Dunbar's response.

The meeting also followed allegations made by Ellis who told Baldwin that he knew of six incidents of sexual assault or harassment against female members of the unit that occurred between 2002 and 2016.

Ellis said then high-ranking officers have done little to address them.

Wisconsin National Guard spokesman Cpt. Joe Trovato said in March the guard "takes all allegations of sexual assault, harassment or misconduct seriously, and eliminating it from our ranks has long been one of our organization’s top priorities."

Trovato said the guard has a "robust program focused on protecting victims" and will provide the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations with any information they request.

 

 

 Katelyn Ferral, public affairs and investigative reporter for the Cap Times, is examining sexual assaults in the National Guard system and how they are handled during a nine-month O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University. This story, and others, is being co-published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is a partner in the effort.

Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.