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Pentagon leaders, lawmakers 'appalled' by arrest of Air Force sexual assault prevention chief

May. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski (Arlington County Police Department)
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Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski is shown in a video from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2011, during a deployment with the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, CJ-7 directorate. (Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System)

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said on Capitol Hill this morning that he and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley are “appalled” by allegations of sexual battery against the chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, 41, was arrested shortly after midnight May 5 when a woman called 911 to report a man she did not know had grabbed her in a Crystal City parking lot in Arlington, Va.

Krusinski, who was removed from his position after the weekend arrest, had been on the job for just two months.

“As we have both said over and over and over again, sexual assault prevention response efforts are critically important to us,” Welsh told lawmakers during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “It is unacceptable that this occurs anywhere at any time in our Air Force. Just so you know, this case is being adjudicated by the Arlington County prosecutor, we have requested jurisdiction, which is standard practice in cases like these.”

Krusinski will be arraigned on Thursday, when the prosecutor will make a decision on jurisdiction — “and we’ll go from there,” Welsh said.

The 11th Wing is the Air Force’s interface with the Arlington County’s sexual assault prosecutor, Welsh said. The wing is at Joint Base Andrews, Md.

Welsh defended the Air Force’s ability to prosecute sexual assault cases.

“For 2012, our prosecution rate was 1 percent below the rate of the national average; our conviction rate was 3 percent above,” Welsh said. “So the idea that we don’t prosecute should not be a concern of the special prosecutor. The idea that we can’t convict as well as the local jurisdiction should not be a concern for this — if we can assure they all have the facts.”

The allegations against Krusinski outraged lawmakers and victim advocates already inflamed by the military’s handling of sex crimes, including a decision earlier this year by an Air Force three-star to overturn a sexual assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has joined calls by lawmakers to remove from commanders the authority to override guilty verdicts in serious crimes such as sexual assault and murder. Such a change would require action by Congress.

But that is not enough for some of the most vocal critics, including Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “When I saw [news of Krusinski’s arrest] it literally made me sick to my stomach,” she said in a statement. “How many more reasons do we need to take cases of rape and sexual assault out of the chain of command?”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., grilled Welsh on why Krusinski was selected for his position.

“It is hard for me to believe that someone would be accused of that behavior by a complete stranger and not have anything in their file that would indicate a problem in that regard,” she said. “Have you looked at his file to determine that his file was absolutely pristine?”

Welsh said he looked at Krusinski’s officer record performance and talked to his current supervisor and found no indications of a problem.

McCaskill said she hoped that Welsh would personally evaluate who should be Krusinski’s replacement.

“I have spent, as you know, hours with JAG prosecutors, not just [Lt. Gen. Richard Harding] and his colleagues at the top of the military justice food chain but with courtroom prosecutors, and you have got a wealth of people in the Air Force who understand what this job has to be,” she said.

“If this allegation is proved true, this was not someone who understood what this job is about. I will be watching very carefully who is selected to replace Lt. Col. Krusinski because I think it is one of those times when you’ll be able to send a message, and I think it’s important we do it.”

McCaskill has put a hold on Lt. Gen. Susan Helms’ nomination to serve as the vice commander of Space Command for overturning a sex assault conviction in February 2012. She has also called for Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin to be fired for overturning the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fighter pilot and former inspector general at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

“In both instances, juries selected by those generals said they believed the victim,” she said. “And in both of those instances, the general said, ‘No, no, we believe the member of the military. That is the crux of the problem here because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there is no point in risking your entire career — or as the victim in the Helms case said, how difficult it was for her to encounter the accused who had been convicted by a jury and have to salute him.”

Protect Our Defenders president Nancy Parrish said in a statement that if the allegations against Krusinski are proven true “this is one more example of a long list of how fundamentally broken the military justice system and culture are. The idea that the head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office could be arrested for sexual assault indicates the depth of the problem. It’s outrageous.

“The Department of Defense is responsible for failing to effectively govern its personnel. The problems are so long standing and pervasive that, at a minimum, they constitute gross negligence on the part of the leadership and actually reflect, albeit informal, countenancing of the violation of the rights of women in the service and of victims of assault, men and women. Congress, DoD, the Executive, and the Judiciary each have roles to play in righting this horrible situation.”

A spokesman for Hagel said the secretary “expressed outrage and disgust” to Donley, the Air Force secretary, over the allegations and said it will be dealt with “swiftly and decisively.”

According to the Arlington County Police Department crime report, a drunken man approached the woman in a parking lot and “grabbed her breasts and buttocks. The victim fought the suspect off as he attempted to touch her again.”

Krusinski has cuts on his face in his booking photo. Police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said he didn’t know whether those were inflicted during the struggle.

The woman broke free and called police from her cell phone, Sternbeck said. “Patrol units were in the area of the crime scene and arrived shortly after.”

Police arrested Krusinski at the scene and charged him with sexual battery. He was released later the same day on a $5,000 unsecured bond.

Krusinski graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1994 with a degree in psychology, according to his LinkedIn account. He has deployed to Afghanistan, where he was assigned to the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan CJ-7 directorate in 2011. Before coming to the Pentagon, he led the 6th Force Support Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

The Air Force could not immediately provide information about prior assignments.

Welsh’s most heated exchange Tuesday was with Sen. Kristin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who argued victims should be able to report sexual assaults to a trained prosecutor instead of their chain of command.

“Clearly, there is insufficient training, insufficient understanding, if the man in charge for the Air Force of preventing sexual assaults is being alleged of committing sexual assault this weekend — obviously, there is a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline,” she said.

The Defense Department has determined there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault and rape in fiscal 2012 but only 3,374 were reported, Gillibrand said. That compares with 19,000 cases in fiscal 2011, of which 3,192 were reported.

“Do you have a sense as to why, if there were 19,000 or 26,000 or some unknown number of sexual assaults and rape within the military every year, why such a fraction are reported?” she said. “Could you surmise that it may well be that a victim has no faith in the chain of command on this issue — on this sexual assaults?”

But Welsh said the main reason victims have said they do not report sexual assaults is they are ashamed to do so. In the past three years, only once out of 2,511 court cases did a commander decide not to prefer sexual assault charges.

“We do not have commanders routinely overturn sexual assault convictions,” he said. “There are two in the Department of Defense in the last five years. The facts are critical as we try and figure out how we need to move forward to solve the problem because it’s very easy to get distracted and derailed and focus on things that will not make this better.

“My concern is ensuring — if that’s ever humanly possible — that no one else suffers from this crime.”

After Tuesday’s hearing, Welsh told reporters the Air Force is doing all that it can to curb sexual assaults.

“We can’t work any harder at it,” he said. “We’re trying everything we can think of. The key for us is finding things that have more traction, that make more of a difference over time — focusing on those, letting some of the other stuff slide away and putting our resources into things that are game-changers. We’re still looking for them.”

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