A Pentagon probe into how the Navy’s top officer handled sexual misconduct allegations against his staffer cleared him of official wrongdoing but found Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson could have replaced the staffer in a timelier manner.
Released Friday, the Defense Department Inspector General report analyzed how Richardson tackled the removal of his then-public affairs officer, Cmdr. Chris Servello, after a boozy 2016 Pentagon holiday party.
It featured a tipsy Servello bedecked in a Santa Claus suit and allegedly pawing at coworkers, earning the entire imbroglio a “Bad Santa” moniker.
Three female Navy officers accused Servello of sexually related misconduct after that Dec. 14, 2016, party, the report states.
But while Richardson said he decided to remove Servello as his main public affairs officer in April of 2017, he failed to act on it until August 18, 2017, days after journalists began sniffing around the allegations and requesting documents.
USA Today broke the story the following month.
By failing to remove Servello more promptly, the Navy’s top officer “sent the wrong message about how seriously ADM Richardson took the allegations of sexual harassment,” the report states.
The Pentagon IG probe commenced in late 2017, after U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — long a critic of the military’s handling of sexual assaults — called for an investigation into “who knew what, when, and why no action was taken to remove the alleged offender (even temporarily) from such an important, public position.”
The report showcases insider decision-making at the Navy’s higher levels, as attorneys offered options to Richardson and his immediate subordinates regarding Servello’s future.
Servello’s name is not included in the report but he has confirmed his role in the affair in the past.
After Richardson told a Senate hearing in April that he could have handled the whole thing better, Servello told Navy Times that no charges were ever filed and said the allegations and statements made about him were “in some cases just plain wrong.”
The Navy officer who oversaw the preliminary investigation into allegations against Servello said that while his actions did not rise “to the level of criminal sexual harassment,” he “consistently failed to demonstrate the maturity or judgement that would be expected of an officer in his position.”
Today, Servello is assigned to the Defense Media Activity, according to Navy spokesman Capt. Gregory Hicks.
After the boozy holiday party, Servello and others headed for dinner at a restaurant near the Pentagon, the report states.
Later that night, he texted a junior female officer six times in 40 minutes and called her twice, behavior that a Navy officer handling the preliminary investigation called “clearly trying to take advantage of the fact that she was intoxicated,” the report states.
That junior officer reported it to her superior the following day, which sparked the inquiry.
About a week after the party, a second person reported that Servello had put his hand on her thigh after a 2014 dinner in Baltimore and suggested they go to her room and make out — what the Navy’s investigating officer called “predatory behavior,” the report recounts.
Servello also gave that woman an “uncomfortably long” hug at the 2016 holiday party, investigators wrote.
About two weeks later, Servello accused the first complainant of sexual assault in a statement to investigators, but what she is alleged to have done to him is redacted in the IG report.
A third complainant also stepped forward and said Servello grabbed her buttocks at the 2016 holiday party, but she declined to provide a statement to investigators.
When she declined to go forward with charges against Servello, the woman told officials, “this happened, and it’s wrong, but I don’t feel like [I was] sexually assaulted,” the report states.
The report said Navy leadership took enough action to probe the allegations against Servello after learning of them and ordered Servello to stay away from the two accusers.
“However, we concluded that after the investigations and legal reviews were completed, and ADM Richardson made his April 26, 2017, decision to remove the PAO from his position, ADM Richardson did not take sufficient action to ensure that his decision was implemented in a timely manner,” the report states.
While Richardson eventually gave Servello an adverse fitness report and a non-punitive letter of caution—essentially ending the officer’s career— four months elapsed between his decision to relieve Servello and his actual removal in 2017, which occurred around the time reporters started asking questions, investigators determined.
“ADM Richardson had full authority to remove (Servello) from his personal staff at any time,” the report states.
In a statement Friday, Richardson called the IG investigation “appropriate.”
“I appreciate the level of scrutiny with which the DODIG approached this matter,” he said. “I learned a great deal from this experience. In particular, I should have moved more quickly to bring matters to a close and to avoid any unintended messaging to the Navy and especially to survivors.”
Because of “Bad Santa,” a new policy temporarily reassigns personal staff officers who are subjects of investigations until completion of the inquiry, according to the IG report.
In January 2017, about a month after the holiday party that sparked the scandal, Richardson was presented with options to keep Servello in place, transfer him or temporarily reassign the officer.
Richardson told Pentagon investigators that he thought Servello had “sufficient physical distance” from his accusers, and a military protective order had been put in place.
After Richardson decided to remove Servello, he told investigators that he and others interviewed potential replacements but couldn’t find a good candidate and that momentum “just sort of languished.”
Richardson told investigators he should have just appointed his deputy public affairs officer to fill the slot immediately after deciding to move Servello.
Richardson said he wanted Servello placed in a low-visibility position. CNO shot down a potential reassignment where Servello would have been the public face of the Navy’s fight against cockpit oxygen loss and other conditions afflicting pilots that are collectively known as physiological episodes.
“When we asked ADM Richardson to comment on his decision to cancel the PAO’s next assignment as the spokesman at Naval Air Systems Command because he did not want the PAO to be a Navy spokesperson for anything, which effectively allowed the PAO to remain in an even more prominent public position as the CNO’s spokesman, ADM Richardson told us that he recognized the ‘logic of inconsistency there,’” the report states.
While Richardson did not act to boot Servello until Aug. 18, 2017, 11 days after USA Today filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records involving the Servello allegations, he denied any cause and effect, the report states.
“I think at the morning stand up I just said, ‘Hey, this guy’s got to be gone,’” he said. “It’s been too long and the thing [the PAO’s reassignment] is not coming together. I still do not have a freaking relief here. We still haven’t found a good place for him, but this is the end. It’s done.”
Richardson also told investigators that the “mechanics got dorked up” because there was a lot of turnover on his staff that summer, including his executive assistant and attorney, the report states.
Servello accompanied Richardson to Japan after the fatal destroyer Fitzgerald collision in June 2017 that killed seven sailors.
Richardson said that collision “might have contributed to the slowness and the mechanical part of executing this decision,” but that “there was no deliberate type of thing done to keep him in place.”
While the report recommends Navy Secretary Richard Spencer “evaluate ADM Richardson’s performance” in connection to “Bad Santa”, the service’s top civilian stood by Richardson in a statement sent to Navy Times Friday, praising the “outstanding job” he has done as CNO.
“We have reviewed and discussed his actions in this chain of events,” Spencer said. “What he has learned from this experience he will pass on to the next generation of leaders, making the Navy even stronger.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.