Lt. Cmdr. Syneeda Penland was convicted of adultery and conduct unbecoming, and was forced out of the Navy months shy of her retirement. But Penland swears she was victimized by her command for reporting waste and fraud.
Now, Penland will have a second chance to prove whether she was the victim of whistleblower retaliation by leaders at Navy Expeditionary Combat Command in the 6-year-old case.
More than six years after she was convicted of crimes she swears she never committed, a disgraced former Navy O-4 has gotten a second chance to prove she was the victim of whistleblower retaliation from her leaders at Navyal Expeditionary Combat Command.
A federal judge on April 20 ruled that the Board for Correction of Naval Records must take a second look at Penland's case of former Lt. Cmdr. Syneeda Penland, to determine whether her substantiated claims of waste, fraud and abuse against her command confer put her under whistleblower status, as she claims — and if they do, whether the Navy should compensate her for forcing her out months before her 20-year retirement mark because of a felony conviction.
"From the day that I blew the whistle, which was April 4, 2007, everything that happened from that point forward — they have to consider, what did [the command] they do?" Penland told Navy Times in a phone interview Friday.
BCNR has the power to expunge the results of her Board of Inquiry, which was the basis of her 2009 discharge, and may allow her to regain the benefits she would have received if she had been allowed to retire.
The BCNR cannot unilaterally overturn her conviction, the federal judge in the case noted, and Penland did not ask for that in her filing. She chose to focus on the BOI decision to streamline her case, she told Navy Times last year, because the process is more straightforward than overturning a criminal conviction.
A Navy spokeswoman declined to comment on the April 20 ruling that sends the whistleblower review back to BCNR.
"The Board of Correction of Naval Records will reconsider their prior decision in accordance with the federal court's order," Lt. Jackie Pau, a Navy spokeswoman, told Navy Times.
Penland, a former supply officer who had earned her commission after several years as an enlisted cryptologic technician, began asking questions about Naval Coast Warfare Group 1's procurement practices almost as soon as she took the comptroller job in 2006.
Her superiors didn't appreciate her informal investigation of some of their contracts and transactions, she said, so when a former colleague's estranged wife contacted the command with allegations of an affair, they had what they needed against her.
The investigation into her relationship with then-Lt. j.g. Mark Wiggan began in April 2007, based on some sexual photos of her with a man. To this day, She claims those photos are of an ex-boyfriend, not her friend and coworker.
At that point, Penland decided to formally file her concerns about NWSG-1 with the inspector general.
Three of her allegations were later substantiated by the IG, which Penland hopes is enough to grant her whistleblower status, and solidify the definition for others who have gone through similar retaliation.
"Her ruling opened up the doorway for me, as far as where I want to go, making sure that our veterans are protected," she said.
Penland was convicted in 2008 of adultery, making false official statements and conduct unbecoming an officer, for which she spent two months in a San Diego brig. Since this was a court-martial, she is a convicted felon — which legal experts say is very unusual for adultery cases.
She first filed a BCNR case to have her BOI overturned in 2009, which moved to dismiss her from the Navy for misconduct and poor performance. It was denied.
After exhausting Navy channels, she filed a claim in federal District of Columbia court against Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to overturn the BCNR's decision, choosing to represent herself.
"The BCNR denied clemency, in part, because Ms. Penland was not a whistleblower under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act," Judge Rosemary M. Collyer wrote in her decision. "In this respect, the BCNR erred. The case will be remanded for reconsideration of whether Ms. Penland’s eligibility as a whistleblower and claims of retaliation entitle her to clemency."
Penland kept meticulous records of her case, including every filing and bit of communication from her criminal investigation, as well as her fraud and retaliation complaints.
"What was key, I believe, is when I gave [Collyer] her the outline of these dates, I gave her also when I was in contact with the Department of Justice," she said.
Now it's a waiting game, she said. Penland's case would technically grant her back-pay for the five months she had left until retirement eligibility, in addition to the past six years of retirement pay, but it's more of a means to the end of clearing her name.
"I never thought of myself as a convicted felon," she said.