According to some who worked for him, there were two sides to former Lt. Gen. Lee Levy.
In public, the former head of the Air Force Sustainment Center was “self-confident, articulate, charismatic, passionate, likeable [and] charming,” witnesses told investigators from the Air Force’s Office of the Inspector General. But some who worked for him saw a very different leader — one who “repeatedly, publicly and personally belittled and berated” his staff, was “abrasive” and created an environment “infused with fear and intimidation.”
Subordinates were “walking on eggshells” to avoid upsetting him, according to a March 2019 IG report.
A comment by one unnamed witness reveals just how reviled Levy — and the toxic command climate he created — was by some: “I think if he was in the battlefield, he probably would’ve been shot in the back,” the witness said.
The IG report, which the Air Force provided at Air Force Times’ request, indicates this witness wasn’t alone.
“Though stated in a number of ways, this sentiment was expressed by virtually every member of Lt. Gen. Levy’s [redacted]," the report says.
Levy’s bullying behavior — which investigators found even extended to making degrading remarks and pig noises in public about a female subordinate’s eating habits — ultimately cost him his third star. He officially retired as a major general on Nov. 1, over a year after he left the center and his formal retirement ceremony was held.
The Air Force Sustainment Center, which is headquartered at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, is part of Air Force Materiel Command and provides depot maintenance, supply chain management and installation support to sustain multiple aircraft including the A-10 Warthog, AC-130, B-1 Lancer, B-52 Stratofortress, F-15, F-16 and F-22 fighters, and the KC-130 Stratotanker.
One witness said that although she knew and liked Levy at first, after going to work for him, things became so bad she began to lose sleep and was unable to get out of bed on weekends.
“There were a lot of nights when I would come home just in tears or … just absolutely emotionally and mentally exhausted from the work,” she said. “After I worked for him and experienced that, it was more of, he’s the boogeyman that you just wanted to run away from.”
In a statement provided by his attorney, Levy said he disagreed with the allegations and characterizations against him in the report.
“I attempted to be tough but fair in my leadership style as we strove for excellence in everything we did,” Levy said. “Had concerns been voiced at the time, I would certainly have addressed the issue to resolve it. Unfortunately, those who are now complaining waited until I left command and was retiring.”
But the IG report detailed repeated, specific incidents that investigators concluded amounted to a failure to set and maintain a healthy command climate.
‘You’re always eating’
Perhaps the most egregious of Levy’s comments — corroborated by multiple witnesses — were directed toward one woman under his command about her eating habits and weight.
This airman told investigators that Levy would “always have to somewhat make a joke at my expense" to groups of people, typically when she was the lowest ranking airman. Although she never had any weight issues or difficulty meeting Air Force fitness standards due to her eating habits — one witness described her as “very much in shape” — Levy would comment about what she was eating, claim she was always sleeping, or say she never knew what she was doing.
She told investigators that one day, as she was sitting at her desk at lunchtime, Levy walked by and said, “Oink, oink, [redacted]. Are you really eating again?”
Levy’s comments made another person so uncomfortable he stepped away, the report stated. Levy looked at her, laughed and grabbed his own lunch before saying, “You’re always eating.”
Another witness corroborated her testimony and said Levy’s conduct was “terribly degrading and rude,” and a sign of toxic leadership.
Levy told investigators he didn’t recall that incident, or making comments about that airman’s weight and eating habits. When asked if he said the airman was “always eating,” he told investigators, “Mmm, I might have said that when I … I don’t know. I don’t know.” He also said if he did say something like that, “it was part of good-natured give-and-take between the two of them” and that the female airman would have participated in it by making jokes about her own eating.
In an email Monday, Levy’s attorney, Richard Stevens, said he denied making pig noises or saying anything intended to be personally belittling or demeaning.
“In general, there were frequently conversations and light-hearted banter among the ‘inner circle’ staff about who was eating what, among many, many other topics every single day,” Stevens said.
But the female airman did not feel it was so light-hearted. She told investigators she felt she was being compared to a pig, and that she didn’t feel his comments were good-natured. To the contrary, she told the IG, they made her feel “terrible.” Like many women, she said, she is conscious about her weight.
That wasn’t the only instance when Levy allegedly made such comments to her. On a business trip to Washington around March 2017, Levy reportedly made another remark about her weight while riding in a government vehicle as it was going over bumps on a freeway.
An unidentified witness said Levy said something along the lines of “if you lose a few pounds, maybe the vehicle would have less strain on it.”
The female airman also testified that Levy said during that drive that she needed to be careful about how much she ate, because her uniform pants might not fit anymore.
The IG said that even if Levy was trying to be humorous and was oblivious that his comments were not being taken in that light, “his comments were inappropriate, particularly given his position and the public contexts in which they were made, (though even if made in private the comments would still not have been appropriate). They undermined [the airman’s] dignity and were not respectful of her.”
‘Do you know who I am?’
The report also detailed multiple other instances in which Levy is said to have bullied or humiliated his subordinates, even on a matter as small as his coffee not being hot enough or dust being on the top of picture frames. Wing commanders also were subject to Levy’s poor treatment, witnesses told the IG, though the report did not detail such incidents.
He once publicly reprimanded a civilian employee for not pulling him out of a meeting with a four-star general when a senator called, even though the senator said not to disturb Levy and left a message wishing Levy happy holidays.
“General Levy was yelling at me so loud that … everybody else … all came out [of their offices] to see who he was yelling at and what he was yelling about,” that witness said. “I was almost in tears. I couldn’t get away from him fast enough, but I stood there and took the, what I call a tongue-lashing, and just kept saying, ‘Yes sir, it won’t happen again.’”
Witnesses told investigators that Levy repeatedly dropped folders and packages on the floor for subordinates in piles to pick up. Several thought it was intentional, and one said he believed it was a “total power move.” One subordinate was so shocked that he took a picture of the pile.
“I still don’t quite know how to respond to it,” said one witness who had to pick up folders Levy left on the floor three separate times. “At the time I felt like was a, you know, ‘Get on your knees, boy … pick that stuff up.’"
Another was so bothered by the disrespect that, after the third time Levy left folders on the floor, told another official that “If that happens again … I will walk out of the office.”
Levy also chewed out another subordinate over the phone over a minor change to a change-of-command ceremony script, flipping the order when the chaplain and the speaker were announced.
“He asked me, do I know who he is? And I said, ‘Yes sir,’” the subordinate told the IG. “And he said, ‘Uh, do you know that I am the three-star commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center?’ and I said, ‘Yes sir, I know.’”
That subordinate told the IG the call was done to humiliate her, and that she “shut down” and lost respect for Levy after that.
Another witness testified that Levy said “I want a head on a platter” over this incident.
Levy told investigators he did not recall it.
The IG said Levy "wrongfully accepted loans from a lesser paid employee,' by having that junior officer pay his personal travel expenses on her own personal bank card in violation of Defense Department ethics regulations. Although Levy at first advanced the subordinate enough money to cover his expenses, the report said, Levy several times failed to replenish that amount to keep up with his spending, and at times he owed her several hundred dollars for months.
As Levy’s planned retirement approached last year, and after several attempts to get repaid, the subordinate began to get nervous that she might not be getting the money she was owed. She asked another official for help, who called Levy and shortly thereafter, Levy cut the subordinate a check.
Stevens, Levy’s attorney, said in a statement to Air Force Times that is a “gross mischaracterization.” He said junior officers had access to a personal bank account of Levy and his wife, and that they were to alert them if that account ran low and never to cover expenses with their own funds.
In this instance, Stevens said, a junior officer overspent the account without Levy’s knowledge and covered the error with her own funds, and then sought reimbursement. Levy did not authorize the overspending or ask to borrow money, and was unhappy his rule against overspending had been broken, Stevens said.
During his interview with the IG, the report said, Levy said he only became aware that his indebtedness to the subordinate was an issue when he read the allegation. When asked about the phone call with the person who intervened to obtain the final payment, said “I have no knowledge of what you’re talking about whatsoever.”
The IG said Levy’s denial was not persuasive, and that the official’s testimony was more credible than Levy’s and such a phone call “is not one that would likely have been overlooked or forgotten.”
“This stark and troubling difference in testimony about whether a telephone call took place raises the specter of a false official statement under Article 107, Uniform Code of Military Justice,” the IG said.
In fact, the IG said, Levy “claimed a lack of memory of events at all or details of the same” when asked about many events and allegations against him throughout his interview.
According to Air Force officials, there was not sufficient evidence to charge Levy with making a false official statement.
Levy offered 13 high-ranking officers and civilians as character witnesses to the IG, although all but three lacked first-hand knowledge or evidence as to the instances regarding his command climate.
Several of Levy’s character witnesses offered positive views about how he treated them personally and mentored them in their careers, the report said, although some acknowledged he could be difficult to please and “long had a reputation for being direct or intense.” Several said Levy’s style was not one they themselves would embrace, and a general officer cited as a character witness said he had turned down a chance to work for him because of his reputation.
In a memo to Air Force Times, Stevens included excerpts from multiple letters of support from those who worked side-by-side with Levy, to refute the claims that Levy had a “dual personality.” Several called Levy a mentor who challenged them to grow as officers and improve their own performance.
“Lt. Gen. Levy was ‘game on’ every day," one letter, whose writer was not identified, said. He “was admittedly a ‘tough’ commander with high expectations. … [T]here was not an unhealthy command climate at the AFSC during my assignment. There was a command climate that expected people to work hard, reach for high goals, and perform at their best every day, but there was absolutely not a disrespectful, belittling or humiliating environment. It was a challenging place to work, but I am a better airman for being pushed to perform my best every day.”
“I would follow Lt. Gen. Lee Levy into combat as his colleague or his subordinate again in any organization,” said another colleague, who also called Levy brilliant, articulate and decisive.
Levy, who joined the Air Force in 1985, commanded AFSC from June 2015 until his change of command and retirement ceremonies were held on Aug. 7, 2018. But when allegations about his behavior emerged while he was on terminal leave, former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson extended his term on active duty and he was reassigned to the Pentagon while the investigation was conducted.
Levy was originally due to officially retire on Oct. 1, 2018. But because he was kept on active duty for the investigation, he reverted to his previous rank of major general last Oct. 6, 60 days after he left his command at AFSC. Stevens said the law requires three-star generals to revert to major general after being out of command 60 days.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said an officer grade determination was conducted, which did not restore his third star. He officially retired as a two-star on Nov. 1.
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.