The chief of Wisconsin’s National Guard resigned Monday following the release of an explosive report that showed the Guard for years botched investigations of sexual assault and harassment, violating state and federal law.
Gov. Tony Evers called for Adjutant General Donald Dunbar’s resignation after learning the Wisconsin National Guard intentionally created its own, internal system of investigating sexual assault complaints to shield the Guard from state law enforcement and federal regulators.
“These internal investigations were deficient in a number of ways that adversely impacted commands’ efforts to properly support victims of sexual assault and hold offenders accountable,” said an 88-page report by the federal National Guard Bureau that Evers released Monday.
That system operated with no formal oversight and was staffed with state investigators who, in many cases, were not properly trained and portrayed themselves as federal officials to victims.
“In some cases, these investigators identified themselves as ‘National Guard Bureau Investigators’ — even though they conducted their investigations exclusively under the auspices of the Wisconsin National Guard,” according to the report.
“The (reviewers) found numerous, significant deficiencies that compromised the accuracy and legality of the Wisconsin National Guard sexual assault investigations,” the report says.
The Guard had just 15% of the number of certified staff federal policies require to handle such allegations. In some cases, commanders had no idea who these staff were within their own units, Evers’ aides said.
Evers said Monday he was “extremely upset and concerned” with the report’s findings.
“Our service members deserve to be safe and supported while carrying out their important mission, which is why I have ordered the Wisconsin National Guard to implement top-to-bottom changes to ensure a safe workplace in the Guard, one that is free of sexual assault and harassment and the fear they might face retaliation for reporting sexual assault or harassment when it happens,” Evers said in a statement.
Brig. Gen. Gary Ebben will take over Dunbar’s position as the state’s top military officer on a temporary basis, Evers said.
Evers also on Monday ordered the Wisconsin National Guard to “promptly and fully” implement the report’s recommendations and is requiring Guard leadership to submit to the governor a plan to do so.
The executive order also requires a general officer appointed by the National Guard Bureau and approved by Evers to oversee implementation of the changes by Sept. 1, 2020, and report monthly to Evers regarding that progress.
At that time, the Guard will undergo another review by federal authorities to assess whether the changes have been made properly. Evers also is creating an office of ombudsman, or an independent officer that will help survivors of sexual assault and harassment during the investigation process and submit quarterly reports to Evers.
The report was released just after The Capital Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that a federal investigator called the Guard’s response to assault allegations “an absolute train wreck” and that Guard leaders discouraged victims from involving local police in investigations.
“I teared up a little,” said the ex-husband of one victim after seeing the report. “Very overcome. I didn’t think this day would come.”
Federal investigators completed their sweeping, seven-month investigation in October as they looked into how the Guard responded to allegations of sexual assault among its ranks.
On Monday, Evers signed an executive order detailing how the Guard will replace Dunbar — just two days after federal investigators briefed Dunbar on the report.
Dunbar’s last day will be Dec. 31. Through a spokesman, he declined to answer questions.
Other findings in the report include:
- The Guard’s sexual harassment and assault policies and programs violated U.S. Department of Defense rules and had deficient staffing, training and resources.
- Dunbar did not track statewide data on sexual assault cases and repeatedly ignored Department of Defense protocols for how to handle sexual assault and harassment cases. He did not report the state’s sexual assault and harassment statistics to a federal database as required by federal law.
- Of 32 total victim advocates in both the Army and Air National Guard, only five were trained and certified. The report also found “instances where Guard commanders and leaders did not attend to or prioritize victims’ needs.”
“Our Wisconsin National Guard service members deserve leadership of unmatched integrity and a work environment free of sexual assault, harassment and the fear of retaliation. This National Guard Bureau report makes clear they have received neither,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who joined Evers this spring in calling for the review of the Wisconsin National Guard.
The review looked at 35 reports from May 2009 to May 2019, one of which was not investigated. Twelve were referred to outside agencies and the other 22 were investigated internally.
The review found those 22 cases should have been investigated by outsiders, but Dunbar maintained he could handle them internally.
“According to senior level witnesses, the adjutant general interpreted (Department of Defense), Service and National Guard Bureau policy prohibiting the use of internal investigators as a policy that only encumbered ‘unit commanders,’ but not adjutants general,” the review states.
Internal investigations of sexual assaults were being conducted as recently as September, the review found.
‘Numerous, significant deficiencies’
The internal reviews were mishandled in multiple ways, with reviewers finding “numerous, significant deficiencies that compromised the accuracy and legality of the Wisconsin National Guard sexual assault investigations,” the review found.
“In certain cases, the investigator was given (or uncovered) multiple alleged instances of a potential sexual assault, but he or she only investigated one or two of the alleged incidents in detail,” the review found.
In one case, a victim was not provided a special victim counsel when she was interviewed by a Wisconsin National Guard investigator.
Investigators had inadequate training, with one investigator acknowledging “not being competent to conduct sexual assault investigations.” Investigators received initial training but did not attend annual refresher courses, the review found.
In some cases, guardsmen and women were asked to simply sign a sheet to acknowledge they saw printed-out PowerPoint slides to prove they received training, the review found.
The system left the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s sexual assault response coordinator overwhelmed.
“Everyday I come to work is like crisis mode,” he told the team reviewing Wisconsin’s handling of assault cases.
Sexual assault investigators conducted investigations on their own, instead of as part of a team, as required by federal policies. There should be at least two investigators for each case to protect against bias, provide broader perspective and keep investigators safe when they conduct interviews, the review says.
In another sign of trouble, the review found that “in some instances the summaries (of interviews) were not an accurate or complete reflection of what was actually stated by the interviewee.”
Victim safety was ignored in another case, where a victim was forced to work alongside a perpetrator.
"On multiple occasions, one or both individuals were carrying loaded weapons while the investigation was ongoing," the report says.
Investigators did not get feedback on their investigations and sometimes did not learn of the outcome of the cases they investigated or whether their findings were accepted or rejected by their superiors.
Sometimes victims were given reports before commanders were, only to later find out the commanders disagreed with the conclusions in the reports.
“Victims (and the subjects of investigations) were often placed in an informational vacuum,” the review states.
“In one case, the victim lamented the fact that she had to constantly seek out updates on her case, and she was never made aware of some of the basic services available to her.”
The Wisconsin National Guard last year reached an agreement with the state Department of Justice on sexual assault investigations — which meant federal investigators were less likely to look into incidents in Wisconsin.
“The apparent intent of the (agreement) is to maximize other state resources that could minimize the use of National Guard Bureau investigators,” the review found.
The agreement was reached under former Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is now a Waukesha County circuit judge. The DOJ has not conducted any investigations under the agreement.
Multiple complaints prompted investigation
Although Evers received the National Guard Bureau report on Nov. 25, Dunbar was not briefed on it by federal officials until Saturday, nearly two weeks later. The delay occurred, in part, because Dunbar was in Afghanistan over Thanksgiving.
The report is based on interviews with 78 Wisconsin National Guard staff, visits to 10 military installations and more than 1,100 documents. It was produced by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations. The bureau is a federal agency that oversees National Guard units around the country and is run by the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.
Evers and Baldwin sought the investigation after several Army Guard victims of sexual assault and Master Sgt. Jay Ellis accused Air National Guard leaders of retaliation and poorly handled investigations.
In March, Dunbar defended the Guard’s handling of investigations in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
"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. "We have also made it a priority to investigate allegations and, when those allegations are substantiated, prosecute and punish offenders."
He wrote that the Guard maintained a zero-tolerance policy.
Dunbar joined the U.S. Air Force in 1983 and led a unit at an air base in Turkey in 2004 and 2005 during the second Iraq War. In 2005, he came to Wisconsin to command the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee.
Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2007 appointed Dunbar as adjutant general, the leader of the Wisconsin National Guard. Republican Gov. Scott Walker kept him on, appointing him to additional five-year terms in 2012 and 2017.
His current terms ends in 2022, but he will be leaving two years early. He will not be paid after Dec. 31, according to the governor’s office.
During his military career, Dunbar earned a Legion of Merit award, among other honors.
He has overseen the deployment of 10,000 Wisconsin soldiers and airmen and airwomen for combat operations, including a mobilization in the late 2010s to Iraq which included the largest operational deployment of Wisconsin Guard troops since World War II, according to the Guard.
Dunbar also has overseen the state’s emergency response through 11 federal emergencies, including the devastating 2008 flooding in southwestern Wisconsin. He also was on hand during emergencies like the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek.
Meg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
This report was produced by Molly Beck of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Katelyn Ferral of The Capital Times and Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Ferral is a 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. Beck and Marley are state government reporters for the Journal Sentinel. This story, and others, is being co-published by the 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.