WASHINGTON – The Marine Corps determined that an officer must fight to keep his job after sexual harassment allegations mushroomed into a scandal that prompted the firing of a general.
Two civilian women accused Maj. David Cheek of making blatant sexual overtures to them at their office at the Corps’ base at Quantico, Virginia. Their allegations, reported by USA TODAY in February, prompted Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller to order a new investigation of their case and ultimately cost Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein his job after he labeled their claims “fake news.”
Cheek will face officers on a board of inquiry, whom he must convince to allow him to continue serving in the Marine Corps.
“The purpose of this board of inquiry is to provide a fair and impartial hearing for this officer to show (his) case for retention on active duty,” said Maj. Craig Thomas, a Marine spokesman.
Sherry Yetter and Traci Sharpe, civilian employees of the Marines, maintained in documents and interviews that Cheek arranged to meet with them privately and on five occasions showed them he had an erection through his clothing. The incidents allegedly occurred several years ago. The women said they didn’t file complaints immediately because they feared retaliation. Cheek denied the allegations.
His lawyer, Brian Magee, said that Cheek was not informed of the findings that led to the board but that he looks forward to proving himself innocent and ending the matter.
“Maj. Cheek has endured at least four investigations over the last five years into the allegations made by Ms. Sharpe and Ms. Yetter, each investigation independent from the last and each reaching the same conclusion,” Magee said. “This board of inquiry will mark the first time we may have the opportunity to question these women under oath and subject to perjury. We look forward to clearing his name.”
The board could discharge Cheek and retire him at a reduced rank, Thomas said.
“The board of inquiry will recommend whether Maj. Cheek should be involuntarily retired from the Marine Corps and, if retirement is recommended, whether Maj. Cheek should be retired in current grade or a lesser grade,” Thomas said.
Troops retire at the rank at which they last served satisfactorily.
That Cheek has been allowed to continue serving and was selected to be promoted and slated for a command rankles Scott Jensen, a retired Marine colonel who was in charge of sexual assault prevention programs. Yetter and Sharpe felt isolated and retaliated against for registering complaints, he said.
Last year, the Marines dismissed Yetter’s complaint after an investigation found her claims to be unsubstantiated.
“This is an all-too-common occurrence and yet another example of how the system needs to change so that victims are believed and offenders are held accountable, regardless of their rank, relationships or perceived reputation,” said Jensen, who is chief executive officer for Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military.
The case with Cheek exposed a series of problems at the Marine and Family Programs Division.
A Marine inspector general’s report in 2015 described a toxic work environment at the Quantico-based division, which includes sexual assault prevention programs. The division struggled with complaints of sexual harassment, racial bias and bad management, including a secret settlement reached with one official to get her to leave quietly from the base known as the “Crossroads of the Marine Corps.”
The report, obtained by USA TODAY, showed that Col. Ernest Ackiss was appointed in 2013 to investigate one of several allegations of sexual harassment against Cheek. Ackiss found the complaint about inappropriate texts from Cheek failed to “meet the threshold of the definition of sexual harassment.”
Ackiss was himself the subject of an investigation into harassment. The division’s chaplain, a Navy lieutenant commander, told the inspector general that Ackiss subjected his wife to inappropriate comments. She worked directly for Ackiss.
“The Col. called his spouse ‘eye candy,’ ” according to the report.
Ackiss was “counseled,” the report says. He retired as a colonel.
Neller removed Stein as director of Marine and Family Programs after an investigation of his comments April 6. Stein referred to allegations by Yetter and Sharpe as “fake news,” a term that President Donald Trump uses regularly to dismiss reporting he doesn’t like. Stein joked that he lived vicariously through a Navy chaplain fired for having sex in public.
“It should not take public and congressional embarrassment to get the commandant to reopen an investigation that should have been thorough and objective the first time,” Jensen said. “While it is good news to know he is being held accountable now, the delay has come at an incredible cost to those he is accused of harassing.”
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