Wisconsin’s National Guard chief resigns over botched handling of sexual assault investigations

Wisconsin’s National Guard chief resigns over botched handling of sexual assault investigations

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At the request of Gov. Tony Evers, Wisconsin National Guard Adjutant General Donald Dunbar will resign from his post at the end of the month after an investigation found a litany of failings in how the Guard handled sexual assault and harassment allegations.

The National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations report, released Monday, said the Guard’s policies and procedures for handling allegations of sexual misconduct are out of date, ineffective, understaffed and in violation of federal rules.

The report stems from allegations that officers with the Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, based at Madison’s Truax Field, had dismissed at least six incidents of sexual assault or harassment. Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, had requested an investigation into the matter in March.

The approximately six-month investigation included on-site interviews at 10 Wisconsin National Guard facilities, reviews of more than 1,100 documents and a canvass of more than 1,600 personnel. More than 15 people who had complained of sexual assault and harassment were interviewed.

“I am extremely upset and concerned with the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations’ findings, especially with how the Wisconsin National Guard investigates sexual assault allegations,” Evers said in a statement. “Our service members deserve to be safe and supported while carrying out their important mission.”

Once Dunbar resigns, Brigadier General Gary Ebben will replace him in an interim capacity until a permanent successor is named.

In an email, Wisconsin National Guard spokesman Joe Trovato directed all inquiries to Evers’ office.

The Wisconsin National Guard’s handling of sexual assault has been on the radar of lawmakers for months. Wisconsin Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jay Ellis complained to Baldwin about the Guard’s handling of sexual assault allegations in November 2018. In February of this year, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, asked Dunbar to launch a full review of how his officers handle sexual assault and harassment complaints.

Among other things, the Office of Complex Investigations report found:

  • The Wisconsin National Guard’s decision to use its own investigators for sexual assault allegations instead of referring them to local law enforcement or other external authorities violated Department of Defense and National Guard Bureau policies.
  • The Wisconsin National Guard lacks the resources, qualified staff, training and oversight to properly investigate sexual assault allegations.
  • Guard officials failed to properly track sexual harassment allegations. The Office of Complex Investigations identified a total of 73 cases of sexual harassment — 60 within the Army National Guard and 13 within the Air National Guard — despite only 41 being reported by the Wisconsin National Guard.
  • The Wisconsin National Guard’s sexual assault prevention and response policy — last updated in May 2013 — has not complied with federal law since April 2014.
  • Of the 32 victim advocates in the Army and Air National Guard, only five were properly trained and certified.

Department of Defense rules require that once the Guard receives an “unrestricted” report of sexual assault — one in which a victim authorizes an investigation — it must be immediately referred to an outside law enforcement agency. Victims also have the option of filing a “restricted” report, which doesn’t prompt an investigation but allows them to access support services.

However, the Guard violated federal rules by conducting internal investigations of 22 of the 35 unrestricted reports of sexual assault from May 1, 2009, through May 31, 2019, according to the OCI report.

Such internal investigations violated federal rules and were improper because the Wisconsin National Guard is ill-equipped to investigate allegations of sexual assault, according to the report, adding the Guard has insufficient resources and uses practices that run counter to federal procedures designed to provide oversight, prevent delays and limit personal bias in investigations.

Though they were supposed to hand off investigations to outside authorities, Wisconsin National Guard investigators even portrayed themselves as federal investigators.

“In some cases, these investigators identified themselves as ‘National Guard Bureau Investigators’ — even though they conducted their investigations exclusively under the auspices of the Wisconsin National Guard,” the report states.

According to the report, Dunbar, who has served in his role since 2007, didn’t view Department of Defense policies related to sexual assault protocols as applying to him.

“The Adjutant General interpreted … policy prohibiting the use of internal investigators as a policy that only encumbered ‘unit commanders,’ but not Adjutants General,” the report said.

The Office of Complex Investigations found the Wisconsin National Guard’s internal investigations lacked oversight and resulted in “incomplete findings and recommendations.”

“There was no established quality control system by which investigators could review each other’s products or reports, and there was no established routine by which best practices or lessons learned were shared amongst the investigators,” the report states.

The report makes several recommendations, including that the Wisconsin National Guard update or correct all policies and procedures to comply with federal law, request assistance from the National Guard Bureau for improvements and corrections, and enhance communication and coordination, both inside and outside the organization.

Evers on Monday issued an executive order directing the Wisconsin National Guard to implement the changes in a corrective action plan.

The Wisconsin National Guard will be reviewed next September to ensure that all changes have been implemented.

In a statement Monday, Baldwin said the OCI report underscores the need for new leadership and guidance at the Wisconsin National Guard.

“Our Wisconsin National Guard service members deserve leadership of unmatched integrity and a work environment free of sexual assault, harassment and the fear of retaliation,” Baldwin said. “This National Guard Bureau report makes clear they have received neither.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul said the state Department of Justice is working with Evers “to assess additional appropriate actions in light of the findings” in the report.

A U.S. Air Force investigation into the same allegations that spawned the OCI report is ongoing.

The Wisconsin National Guard received 52 reports of sexual assault between 2013 and 2017, with more than half related to military service.

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