Lt. Col. Mario Verrett’s April firing from squadron command occurred days after it emerged that he pushed an enlisted airman under his command to lie to investigators about their sexual relationship.
According to a commander-directed investigation obtained by Air Force Times via the Freedom of Information Act, Verrett — who was relieved of command of the 496th Air Base Squadron and U.S. Forces Morón Air Base in Spain on April 28 — was being investigated for allegedly fraternizing and engaging in an unprofessional romantic relationship with a senior airman who was his executive assistant. The report substantiated that claim.
But in the process of that investigation, the report said, Verrett tried to coordinate with his assistant and influence her to conceal their relationship. This amounted to obstruction of justice ― a violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice ― and an attempt to “wrongfully endeavor to impede an investigation” into his actions, the report said.
“It was, plainly, an unprofessional relationship,” the report said.
The report also substantiated claims that Verrett was derelict in his duties by repeatedly using vulgar and inappropriate language at commander’s calls and other public events and intimidating airmen, including threatening to “throat punch” them “until you die.”
It also substantiated claims that he misused his position by approving excessive or unauthorized temporary duty, improperly directed private organizations to expend funds, and approved spending more money on refreshments at official functions than was allowed.
The Air Force said Verrett was unavailable for comment. He is now assigned to Headquarters Air Force at the Pentagon, as a staff officer in the operations, plans and requirements directorate.
In a letter accompanying the FOIA release, the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany said that Verrett received a non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ from the 86th’s commander and was relieved of his own command.
“In this case, as in all cases, a thorough investigation was conducted, and commanders throughout the chain of command reviewed all of the evidence at multiple stages throughout the process,” Air Force spokeswoman Brooke Brzozowske said in an email Wednesday. “In determining the appropriate actions, the commander sought the advice of his staff judge advocate, heard from the member and his defense counsel, and based his decisions on the totality of the circumstances and the maintenance of good order and discipline in the service.”
Brzozowske said the Air Force could not say whether Verrett is planning to retire.
‘A bad situation’
Verrett assumed command of the 496th in July 2016, and met the senior airman with whom he would eventually have the relationship later that summer. They grew close and began a relationship in October 2016. Verrett would take her and her visiting grandmother on shopping trips and to meals — including Thanksgiving dinner. She also became Verrett’s executive assistant.
She would hide in his back seat as he drove her onto base and to his house at night, where she often spent weekends, and they went on trips together, including a shopping trip in Seville, Spain, for holiday gifts and a trip to Portugal over New Year’s. Verrett was later confronted with a photograph from the Portugal trip suggesting she was with him, the report said. He admitted that she was there, but said that he told her to leave.
He bought her gifts beyond the gifts he gave to other airmen in his front office, including new clothes that suited his tastes, tennis shoes and a chessboard with a note reading “Your move.”
They started showing up at events together, which prompted airmen to whisper about their apparently close relationship. At one dinner, a Marine lieutenant colonel observed Verrett and the senior airman together and remarked that “the same [fraternization] rules that apply to the Marine Corps don’t apply to the Air Force.”
And when her broken car was in the shop, he drove her around for two weeks, the report said. Verrett explained it away as being his duty as commander to watch out for his airmen — but it only led to more rumors.
“The unorthodox action of an O-5 driving around an E-4 was clear to all,” the report said.
Their relationship and perception of his favoritism towards the senior airman led to strife in the squadron. Four noncommissioned officers saw them at a Burger King together during the period when her car was being repaired, and Verrett “made a showing” of explaining why they were there together. The NCOs reported their concerns to an unnamed official, the report said.
After Verrett learned of the allegations made against him, he chastised his airmen for believing what he claimed were false rumors about them and rhetorically asked, “Who here thinks I have favorites?”
He also pointed at one particular NCO he believed had complained about him, but did not say the NCO’s name. Verrett addressed the matter again at an all-call in which some airmen’s spouses were present. The speeches “began to detract from his authority as the commander,” the report said.
“The perceptions of favoritism persisted and the members saw that, rather than responding constructively and objectively, Lt. Col. Verrett instead dismissed and sometimes publicly and aggressively defended his behavior,” the report said. “The senior-ranking enlisted members were also instructed to quash those rumors.”
Around late February and early March, Verrett arranged to have the senior airman’s final medical examination ― she was preparing to leave the service ― at Ramstein coincide with a trip he was taking to that base for a ceremony. He arranged for her to be moved from the shared-bathroom lodging senior airmen typically used there to a room near him in the main lodging building. This did not go unnoticed.
“After the move, a civilian employee messages an old friend at the 496th Air Base Squadron and writes, ‘This is a bad situation,’” the report said.
The two discussed that Verrett even suggested to other senior leaders there that he and the senior airman might end up married after she left the Air Force.
Obstruction of justice
In early April, an investigator arrived at Morón to look into multiple complaints made to the inspector general about Verrett. On April 25, the investigator granted the senior airman immunity, after which she opened up about her relationship with Verrett.
That night, the report said, Verrett called her from another person’s cell phone and pressed her about the interview until she revealed that she admitted to having sex with him. At that point, the report said, Verrett became upset. He told her that until then, investigators had no hard evidence. He also said she had ruined his 28-year career and that he could face up to two years of confinement as a result. The senior airman recorded that conversation and turned it over to the investigator the next day ― and also said she and Verrett had rehearsed their testimonies to make sure their stories lined up.
The report said that the attempt to match their stories showed that Verrett was intending to hide his misconduct, which is one of the elements of obstruction of justice.
Verrett was informed of his rights in an April 27 meeting with the investigator, the report said. He declined to answer questions and requested an attorney. Verrett was fired the next day by Col. Gerald Donahue, commander of the 86th Operations Group, which oversees the 496th, due to “a loss of trust and confidence in his duties as squadron commander,” the 86th Airlift Wing said in May.
‘I’ll throat punch you until you die’
The report said Verrett has a “gregarious personality,” and was known by some of his airmen as someone who “tried to create a caring, family type atmosphere” and demonstrated respect, fairness and dignity toward his airmen.
But other airmen felt differently. Several airmen said Verrett frequently said, “I’ll throat punch you until you die,” though they viewed it as a figure of speech. Even though they did not perceive it as a literal threat, they felt it was unprofessional for a commander to say.
Verrett also often told people he felt had betrayed him or let him down that “If you’re going to f--- me, I’m going to f--- you right back.”
Verrett also frequently cussed at his airmen and his tone was often “aggressive, intimidating and belligerent with the intent to demoralize, cause fear and make one feel small.”
A newly-arrived senior NCO said Verrett was inappropriate during and after unit fitness activities. After Verrett’s team once won a Frisbee game, Verrett said, “We whipped that ass!” And on another occasion, after unit PT, the senior NCO heard Verrett loudly ask female airmen, “How do you do it? Look so pretty after PT?” Verrett also sometimes called female airmen “baby girl,” even after he was advised not to.
Other witnesses described multiple instances where Verrett publicly ran down and disrespected current and former members of the 496th, and that senior leadership would sometimes have to do “damage control” afterwards, the report said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.