The Navy’s top officer said Thursday that he regrets the message he sent to the fleet when he failed to promptly remove one of his spokesmen who was accused of sexual impropriety at a Navy Christmas party but allowed to stay on in the high-level position for months.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s comments came after he was questioned by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand about how the boozy incident involving Richardson’s former head spokesman, Cmdr. Chris Servello, had played out.
Dressed as Santa during a 2016 Pentagon office Christmas party, Servello was accused by fellow officers and a civilian of unwanted sexual passes and slapping a woman’s buttocks, according to a USA Today report that broke the story in September.
An initial Navy inquiry recommended that Servello be removed from his post, but USA Today reported that Servello was not reassigned until a few weeks after the paper sought records of the incident and its investigation last summer.
Gillibrand brought up Servello as Richardson testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday.
“We had an issue with regard to bad Santa, as you know,” the New York Democrat said to Richardson. “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?”
Richardson said the incident required a “thorough investigation into a complicated scenario” involving “allegations and counter-allegations,” but that his “radar has been completely retuned” by the incident and its fallout.
“I’ve become acutely aware that that may have sent a bad message, particularly to the survivors of the behaviors,” Richardson said.
“It took longer in hindsight than it should have,” he added. “If I was going to do it again, I would have moved faster.”
The Navy’s inquiry chided Servello for his behavior that day involving a female lieutenant at an after-party dinner, USA Today reported.
“While I do not believe this incident rises to sexual harassment, CDR Servello clearly appears to have exhibited predatory behavior in targeting a young LT who had too much to drink,” the paper quotes the investigator as writing.
Servello was found to have exhibited “extremely poor judgement,” but the investigator did not find the evidence supporting sexual harassment charges.
“He has shown a pattern of using his outstanding professional reputation and standing in the (public affairs) community as an advantage in attempting to develop sexual relationships,” USA Today quoted the investigator as writing.
Servello told USA Today last year that criminal charges were not recommended in the incident.
“The allegations were unproven and charges were not filed,” he was quoted as saying in USA Today. “I should never have put myself in a situation where my judgement or my military bearing could be called into question.”
On Thursday, Servello told Navy Times that the full details of the incident were never disclosed and the issue was being politicized unnecesarily.
“The statements made about me and the alleged incident of December 2016 remain incomplete and in some cases just plain wrong. Strip away the agenda and considering only the facts, this is pretty straight forward. The alleged incident was thoroughly investigated and no charges were ever recommended or filed. To continue to be drug through the mud without the benefit of all the facts being made public seems unproductive and unhelpful to all involved,” Servello told Navy Times in an emailed statement.
Richardson told USA Today in September that he was advised by legal counsel throughout the incident.
“I followed the prosecutor’s recommendations to the letter, imposing several adverse measures including dismissing Cmdr. Servello from the staff and reassigning him to a non-supervisory position,” the paper quoted him as saying. “Due process was strictly followed to safeguard both the dignity and safety of the complainants and the rights of Cmdr. Servello.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.