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Mistreatment of subordinates: Polumbo, Rydholm, Zbyszinski, Schmidt, Long

Jun. 23, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
From left to right, starting at top: Polumbo, Rydholm, Zbyszinski, Schmidt and Long
From left to right, starting at top: Polumbo, Rydholm, Zbyszinski, Schmidt and Long ()
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A lieutenant colonel who would later rise to the rank of one-star nearly wrecked the career of a captain under his command over allegations of drug use he knew to be untrue.

A lieutenant colonel who would later rise to the rank of one-star nearly wrecked the career of a captain under his command over allegations of drug use he knew to be untrue.

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Note: This story was updated June 24 with a response from retired Col. Scott Long.

A lieutenant colonel who would later rise to the rank of one-star nearly wrecked the career of a captain under his command over allegations of drug use he knew to be untrue.

Robert Polumbo, then-commander of the 93rd Fighter Squadron at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, grounded the captain from flying and barred him from accessing classified information when the accusations came to light in October 2003.

By January 2004, Polumbo no longer believed the claims to be true. The allegations “at best ... may have beenbased on the unsworn testimony of a jilted girlfriend and former friend who may have held a grudge against” the pilot, according to an October 2012 Air Force inspector general report obtained by Air Force Times.

Still, Polumbo continued to take adverse actions against the captain, who received a damaging referral officer performance report and was involuntarily reassigned. Polumbo also oversaw the captain’s suspension and disqualification from flying.

Polumbo is one of four general officers and an O-7-select cited in IG reports for actions involving subordinates. The IG also found:

■ While commander of the 482nd Operations Group at Homestead, then-Col. Derek Rydholm, now a one-star, encouraged Polumbo to take the actions against the captain who’d been cleared of drug use allegations.

■ Col. Nancy Zbyszinski, a one-star select, retaliated against a major when the major tried to take a complaint up the chain of command.

■ While commander of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force Command in Belgium from April 2009 to August 2012, Maj. Gen. Stephen Schmidt screamed and swore at his subordinates, called them names and forced them to take orders from his wife. This

■ As commander of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, in 2012, Col. Scott Long donned his flight suit for a private charity auction, where he stood on stage and pressured members of his staff to bid on items they didn’t really want.

'Premeditated' removal

Polumbo did the right thing when he grounded the captain amid allegations of drug use in October 2003, the IG said.

But Polumbo later took increasingly damaging actions against the captain even though he he’d learned the accusations to be untrue — “part of a premeditated plan” to get the captain out of the unit, the investigating officer wrote.

Polumbo issued a letter of reprimand against the captain because he allegedly “associated with drug users and frequented clubs where drugs were out in the open.” But the squadron commander “took no action against members of the squadron who attended the same clubs ... and, on occasion, attended these clubs with [the captain,]” the IG said.

When questioned about this by the investigating officer, Polumbo wouldn’t answer. “I don’t have any other statements,” the report quoted Polumbo as saying. “I don’t have any response for you. This was the incident that came to my attention and I got the information on it and I acted.”

After being grounded for more than three months, the captain’s flight status went inactive. Polumbo suspended and then disqualified the pilot from flying without required approval from the major command.

In December 2004, Polumbo gave the captain a referral officer performance report. The alleged drug use formed the basis for the referral, which Polumbo had deemed unfounded nearly a year earlier, the IG report said.

“Based on Brig. Gen. Polumbo’s actions, it is hard to believe that his ultimate motive was other than the removal of [the captain] from the unit,” the investigating officer wrote. He “never seemed willing to change his course of action regardless of the information that was available to him.”

Polumbo didn’t act alone. As commander of the operations group at Homestead, Rydholm “was the principal advisor to the wing command for flying operations.”

Rydholm said “he did not trust [the captain] and did not want him flying ‘our’ airplanes and therefore grounded him,” the IG said. The distrust “was based on rumor and innuendo as well as events that had been resolved prior to [the captain] joining the unit.”

The group commander’s actions also constituted an abuse of authority, the report concluded.

Both Rydholm and Polumbo were promoted to brigadier general before the captain filed the IG complaint against them in November 2010. Rydolm is now director of Air, Space and Information Operations for Air Force Reserve Command at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. Polumbo has served as mobilization assistant to commanders since August 2008, most recently for the 12th Air Force.

The captain at the center of the abuse received some relief from the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records in October 2010, including retroactive promotion to major, the IG report shows.

In January, Inspector General of the Air Force Lt. Gen. Stephen Mueller ordered a rare reinvestigation of the allegations against the one-stars. Col. Matthew Bartlett, director of senior official inquiries for the IG, said cases may be reconsidered if the subject of the investigation provides “new and compelling information.”

Rydholm, citing the open investigation, declined comment for this story through an Air Force spokesman. Polumbo did not respond to an Air Force Times request for comment.

Retaliation

When a major assigned to the Office of Air Force Reserve tried to take her grievances to a two-star general in her chain of command, Zbyszinski had the meeting canceled and issued the woman a letter of counseling.

Zbyszinski wrote that the major, whose name was redacted from the IG report, “failed to discuss this matter” with her supervisor, her supervisor’s boss, and Zbyszinski, who was next in the chain. “This is the third time you have intentionally chosen to disregard your chain of command for which you were verbally counseled ... once prior in December 2011.”

The major responded that she had in fact tried to work out the problems with all three, including failed attempts at “mediation sessions.”

She planned to discuss with the two-star “the three years of verbal and mental abuse I have suffered under [my boss]. I also intended to mention how since I had brought this abuse to the attention of both you and [another colonel in the chain of command] and attended mediation sessions ... things have only got worse. Maj. Gen. [James] Jackson is the next person in my chain of command, and I believe it is now the appropriate time to elevate my situation to his level.”

Zbyszinski disagreed. The letter of counseling against the major would stand.

Zbyszinski’s actions amounted to reprisal, the IG found. The major’s response to the LOC left no doubt the major had planned to make a protected communication to the major general, the report said.

“Once [the major] had informed Col. Zbyszinski about the reason for the complaint and the appointment with Maj. Gen. Jackson, Col. Zbyszinski should have allowed her to do so without comment,” the IG wrote.

The Air Force issued Zbyszinski, a one-star select, a letter of counseling for the reprisal.

Zbyszinski declined an Air Force Times request for comment for this story. She continues to serve as director of personnel for the Office of Air Force Reserve.

'Open up your wallet'

Long was among a group of Air Force colonels slated to be confirmed for promotion to one-star when the Senate Armed Services Committee received an anonymous complaint against him in March 2013.

Among the allegations taken up by the IG: The outgoing commander of the 388th Fighter Wing was improperly involved in a nonprofit group and charity auction that raised money for Hill Air Force Base airmen, their families and community organizations.

The nonprofit group that oversaw the annual auction had not sought approval for “official endorsement” that was necessary for his participation, the IG said.

“I would strongly recommend you not personally be involved in the [private organization] because it is too hard to separate your position as the [wing commander] from your acting in a personal capacity in a private organization,” the judge advocate general wrote to Long in December 2011, nine months before the charity auction.

“In my opinion, your participating in this would be a violation of the Joint Ethics Regulation.”

In an interview with Air Force Times, Long said he heeded the advice, removing himself from the organization’s executive board.

“I completely distanced myself from it,” Long said.

Multiple witnesses confirmed Long’s statement, telling the IG that the commander’s wife was responsible for the charity event and that the commander took a backseat.

But at least one person said it was the other way around. Two officers, a colonel and lieutenant colonel whose names were redacted from the report, described Long showing up to the September 2012 charity auction in uniform and standing next to the auctioneer on stage, where the commander singled airmen out and pressured them to bid on items they didn’t want.

The lieutenant colonel told the IG he was stuck with a $50 item he didn’t want when Long yelled and pointed at him during the auction.

“There was this sense of ... ‘you need to be generous and open up your wallet and cough up some cash,’ ” the lieutenant colonel said. “I probably could have said no a lot easier to the auctioneer than with my wing commander standing there next to him.”

Long told Air Force Times he wore his flight suit, just as previous commanders had done. He also said he took the stage and made some remarks to open the event. After that, he said, he handed the microphone to the auctioneer and took a seat at the back of the room. His only participation after that was to buy several items up for bid.

“I didn’t pressure anybody to buy anything,” he told Air Force Times.

Those who said otherwise had been the subject of disciplinary actions for documented performance issues, Long said. “In my case, the IG provided a stage for [these] officers ... who had an ax to grind and motive to lie to purposefully assault my reputation and career,” Long said in an email.

He said the investigator did not provide him with enough information about the allegations to be able to properly defend himself — including providing a list of witnesses who could have corroborated his version of what happened at the auction.

The IG ultimately concluded Long participated in multiple aspects of the the 2012 Round Up and “blurred his personal capacity status with his official position, duty and title.” His actions “violated several components of the [Joint Ethics Regulations] regarding fundraising,” according to the IG report.

At the time of the investigation, Long was set to assume command of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Three months before the IG report was finalized, Stars and Stripes reported Long had decided to retire instead.

His experience during the investigation influenced his decision to retire, Long told Air Force Times.

“Although the IG can serve a valuable role, reform is needed to prevent other good airmen and families from having to endure an excessive and flawed process that all too often ruins good officers and careers and treats them in a guilty until proven innocent manner,” Long wrote. “The IG system currently lacks the safeguards to prevent this from happening.”

Long said he has provided several members of Congress and the Defense Department IG with a list of recommendations for IG reform “in the hopes that the world’s premier Air Force treats airmen and their families better going forward.”

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