The U.S. Navy’s top officer is under fire after mishandling multiple sexual-misconduct allegations against a “predatory” aide, including one incident at a Christmas party inside the Pentagon, the inspector general’s office announced this week.
In its findings, the Pentagon blamed Adm. John Richardson, the current chief of naval operations, for continuing to employ Cdr. Chris Servello while refusing to investigate allegations by three women against the Naval public affairs officer, which first emerged after a 2016 office Christmas party.
While dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, Servello—whose name redacted from the report, but has publically acknowledged his actions—allegedly slapped a woman’s butt and then made sexual advances in a "predatory" text message toward another “subordinate officer,” according to the report released Wednesday following a nine-month investigation into Navy senior leadership.
Richardson, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is currently the highest-ranking officer to be directly criticized for his handling of sexual-misconduct claims.
"We believe that Adm Richardson’s failure to ensure that [Servello] was removed from his personal staff in an expeditious manner—for 4 months after he decided to reassign the [Servello] and take administrative action against him—sent the wrong message about how seriously Adm. Richardson took the allegations of sexual harassment,” the report concluded. “We agree with Adm. Richardson that he should have acted more expeditiously.”
Following the initial 2016 allegation, Richardson did direct an officer to conduct “a preliminary inquiry.” But when Servello’s only punishment was a reassignment and an order “to stay away” from one of his accusers, a third accusation emerged.
That allegation occurred two years prior was also included in the internal investigation. According to the report, a female junior Navy employee claimed Servello “put his arm around her shoulder, and asked if he could come up to her room and ‘make out’ with her.” The same woman alleged that, in 2016,“while dressed as Santa Claus, [he] gave her two ‘uncomfortable’ long hugs.”
Richardson kept Servello employed for nine months after the internal investigator branded the 41-year-old’s actions as “predatory.” Despite his initial claims to Richardson, however, the internal investigator concluded the public affairs officers actions “did not rise to the ‘level of criminal sexual harassment,’” but acknowledged that he did “consistently fail to demonstrate the maturity or judgment that would be expected of an officer in his position.”
The final recommendation for Servello was redacted in the report released Friday.
“I have become acutely aware that that may have sent a bad message, particularly to the survivors of the behavior,” Richardson said, according to USA Today. “So my radar has been completely re-tuned in terms of sensitivity to that message. I hope that we’ve arrived at a good place at the end of this event. It took longer, in hindsight, than it should have. And if I were to do it again, I’d move faster."
The investigation into Richardson, however, came a year after the incident when Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-NY) requested a probe of “senior Navy leadership response” to the allegations, questioning their “lack of immediate action” to remove the public affairs officer,” the report noted.
In April, the New York Democrat brought up Servello when Richardson testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, just a few months after her calls for an investigation were answered.
“We had an issue with regard to ‘bad Santa,’ as you know,” she told the top naval officer. “Do you have a sense of what message members serving under you received from him being allowed to stay in that position, and have you changed your approach because of that incident?”
The inspector general, while critical of the top officer, did not find Richardson's actions to be “official misconduct,” instead recommending the Navy secretary review his overall performance.
“We found no applicable standard that requires Amd. Richardson to remove [Servello] from his staff position immediately, or to assign him to other duties within any specified time period after learning of the complaints against him or investigations into his conduct,” the report said, adding the issue reflects only his performance.
The report additionally revealed that Richardson has acknowledged his failure to respond sooner to the accusations and has henceforth established a policy to immediately re-assign accused individuals until they are thoroughly investigated.
“I welcome the level of scrutiny shown in your investigation,” Richardson said in response to the report’s conclusions. “I have learned a great deal from this incident and will use these lessons going forward.”
This is not the first sexual-misconduct scandal involving senior leadership that has rocked the Pentagon in recent years. A USA Today investigation last year found more than “500 cases of serious lapses, almost half of them involving personal or ethical lapses.”
Prompted by these Pentagon scandals, Congress proposed an amendment to the defense-funding bill penalizing officers who have been involved in sexual-misconduct cases. The law forces governmental agency to launch a new investigation to conclude whether other officers who have committed misconduct should be able to retain their security clearances after retirement.
“Our report speaks for itself, we have no additional comments to add,” a spokesperson for the Pentagon told The Daily Beast on Friday.