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Chief to retire at lower grade after probe of 2006 conviction

January 30, 2015 (Photo Credit: Defense Department)

A technical sergeant who ascended to the highest enlisted rank after a 2006 civilian conviction and jail sentence will retire later this year in the grade of senior master sergeant, the Air Force said late Friday.

The announcement comes four months after the service opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Chief Master Sgt. Eric Soluri's conviction on a misdemeanor charge of threatening to commit a crime and subsequent actions taken by the Air Force.

Criminal convictions generally end a service member's career. But Soluri was promoted three more times, to the top 1 percent of the enlisted force, at a time when the smallest missteps have ended the careers of thousands of airmen.

Following the investigation, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has ordered a review of Air Force instruction to ensure crimes are documented in service members' records going forward, Air Education and Training Command spokesman Col. Sean McKenna said in an email Friday,

The probe, ordered by 502nd Air Base Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Robert Labrutta in October, found the chief properly disclosed his conviction to the Air Force, McKenna said.

Further, Soluri's leadership was under no obligation to make the conviction a part of his service record, a step that could have initiated Soluri's separation from the service, McKenna said.

Air Force Instruction requires supervisors to document only court-martial convictions in airmen's performance evaluations. That same requirement does not exist for civilian convictions, although documentation is "strongly encouraged," according to the AFI.

"His commanders made permissible discretionary decisions during that period not to document his civilian conviction or jail time in any of his formal military reports," McKenna said. "The investigation revealed that Soluri took no inappropriate actions to hide this information from his official military documents or records."

His supervisors also chose not to "take the conviction into account when stratifying him for promotion against his peers," he said.

Welsh "has directed a review of Air Force instructions to make sure this doesn't happen again," McKenna said. "The Air Force expects guidance to the field in spring 2015."

Case began in 2004

Soluri was an enlisted accessions recruiter in Waltham, Massachusetts, when he was accused of assaulting his then-girlfriend in 2004.

The woman told authorities Soluri had "picked up a candle in a glass jar and told her that … he was going to bash her head in" after she told him she'd spoken to another man at a bar during a weekend away, according to court documents. She further alleged a consensual sexual encounter later that night turned into an act of forced and painful sex. Air Force Times is not naming the woman because of the nature of the allegations.

The woman reported the allegations to Air Force authorities within days of the incident. Office of Special Investigations agents referred the case to the local Concord police department, which charged Soluri with assault and battery and threatening to commit a crime.

Soluri denied the allegations.

When the case went to trial two years later, a jury found Soluri guilty of threatening to commit a crime and sentenced him to six months in jail, of which he served 14 days. He was also court-ordered to attend a batterer's intervention program.

Airmen sentenced to six months or more are subject to discharge regardless of whether any of that time is suspended. In addition, airmen with five or more days of "lost time" – when they are unavailable for duty – cannot re-enlist without a waiver from a unit commander, according to Air Force instruction. Soluri had more than twice that.

But months after he walked out of jail, Soluri was selected for promotion to master sergeant. He climbed quickly up the ranks, pinning on chief in December 2013. By then, he was security forces manager for the 802nd Security Forces Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

It was there that Soluri's chain of command was tipped off about the 2006 conviction. LaBrutta ordered Soluri, who at that time was deployed to Afghanistan, back to Texas, where he was reassigned to wing headquarters at Fort Sam Houston pending the outcome of an investigation.

"As we've stated throughout the process, military members must adhere to the highest standards of integrity and professionalism, including holding each other accountable, regardless of when the misconduct occurred," McKenna said.

While the probe found Soluri did not hide his conviction, it did uncover misconduct for which the chief was disciplined administratively on Jan. 13, McKenna said. "That statute of limitations precluded the Air Force from considering action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Privacy Act precludes further comment by the Air Force."

Soluri will retire honorably from the Air Force in the pay grade of an E-8, probably effective April 1, McKenna said. Soluri will not retire in the grade of chief because he did not serve in the rank for at least three years.

Call for change

For at least one lawmaker and victims advocacy group, that outcome illustrates why serious crimes should be handled by independent prosecutors – and not commanders.

Retired Col. Don Christensen, former Air Force chief prosecutor-turned-president of Protect Our Defenders, called the case a "perfect example of how the command-driven justice system covers for the crimes committed by military members. Clear message is if your commander likes you, you can get away with violence against women or sexual assault."

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who has joined dozens of lawmakers in calling for an independent military justice system, called Soluri's impending honorable retirement in the grade of senior master sergeant "nothing but a slap on the wrist."

"Chief Master Sgt. Soluri was convicted of threatening to bash his girlfriend's head with candle jar … and the military vowed he would get the proper punishment. Instead, his commanders decided they liked him and chose to keep him in the military and cover up the conviction," Speier said in an email statement. "This is a systemic problem, and despite the Pentagon's assurances, nothing's changed."

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