For six years as the chief of naval personnel and the vice chief of naval operations, Adm. William Moran violated Pentagon rules by conducting official business on a personal email account, including extensive conversations with an officer dogged by sexual harassment allegations, federal investigators have ruled.
Released Wednesday, the probe by the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General explained Moran’s shocking July 7 request to suddenly retire from the sea service, despite breezing through Senate confirmation to fleet up and become the chief of naval operations.
The IG’s report centers on Moran’s email consultations with a former top public affairs officer who was removed from his post after he was accused of sexually harassing women during a boozy 2016 holiday party at the Pentagon.
The report does not name this officer, but he has previously been identified as now-retired Cmdr. Chris Servello, whose was nicknamed “Bad Santa” by some lawmakers after investigators found he engaged inappropriately with female junior officers and civilians while dressed in a Santa suit.
Despite Pentagon rules barring the practice, Moran also used his Gmail account to communicate with other Navy military, civilian and contractor employees, according to the IG.
In the wake of the Bad Santa scandal and under pressure from Congress, Servello had been pushed out of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s staff and exiled to Maryland’s Defense Media Activity, where he worked until his June retirement.
The IG probe found Navy leaders allowed Servello to set up his own private consulting firm while still on active duty.
At the time, Moran was the vice chief of naval operations and continued to seek Servello’s advice on a variety of topics.
While IG ruled that Moran’s use of his Gmail account to conduct business with Servello violated Pentagon policies, the investigation found that Moran’s continued consultations with Servello were not misconduct, instead calling them a “performance issue” to be addressed by his superiors, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer and the former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, who stepped down last week.
“We found no applicable standard that prohibited ADM Moran from continuing his personal and professional relationships with (Servello) after his removal from CNO’s staff,” the report states.
Still on active duty, Moran declined comment Wednesday through Cmdr. Jereal Dorsey, a Navy spokesman.
Adm. Richardson told investigators he was aware that Moran and Servello continued a relationship after the Bad Santa scandal, saying that they “were friends and they’d known each other for years.”
“I was not surprised that Admiral Moran continued to maybe have contact with (Servello) and that wouldn’t be inappropriate,” Richardson told IG. “I mean, (Servello) went through a hard time himself, and if you’re mentoring somebody you want to make sure that they’re doing okay…so, this type of thing would have been completely appropriate.”
But Servello helping Moran with speech writing and public affairs as Moran prepared to become CNO “was well beyond just a friend reaching out,” Richardson continued.
“That was a much different relationship than I was aware of,” he said.
Moran said he had known Servello since the officer was his public affairs officer when he was chief of naval personnel.
“He understood my voice really well, a hell of a good writer, and very good with the media, and incredibly strong instincts about Public Affairs, and the more we got to work together the more I appreciated his skills,” Moran told investigators. “Just the best I had ever come across.”
Servello’s Bad Santa allegations were “a personal kick in the gut for me,” Moran said, but he still wanted to take advantage of his former spokesman’s talents, even after the PAO had been disciplined administratively and moved.
“Here’s a guy who was held accountable,” Moran said. “His career was ended. He got pushed out of the Navy but still on active duty, getting a Navy paycheck. But his talent is still his talent and I continue to have dialogues with him.”
Moran conceded that his continued murky relationship with Servello could suggest to outsiders that he didn’t care about the women who complained to investigators about his ex-spokesperson’s conduct. However, Moran said he’d "expressed my personal disappointment to him, but I also cared for him.”
“Some would argue I got out of balance on this from the optics standpoint,” Moran added. “I think I got it about right. That’s how I view it.”
“I understand and accept that some view my continuing professional relationship with this Navy commander as insensitive, inappropriate, or wrong,” he said. “I regret this.”
Moran told investigators that he believed in the power of redemption and that he had an obligation to help an officer like Servello recover from professional setbacks.
“This report reminds leaders at all levels, but especially senior leaders, that striking the balance between accountability and redemption is at the heart of leading women and men in the profession of arms,” Moran said. “Getting that balance right is not always easy.”
Moran also said he was forced to lean on Servello because the Navy Chief of Information staff “was a mess,” and had not had an admiral in charge for nearly 18 months.
Moran’s speech writer was an inexperienced lieutenant who excelled at research but not at writing speeches, Moran added.
In his written response to the IG probe, Moran noted that he never exchanged classified information while using his private account.
During their probe, IG investigators sifted through 572 pages of emails from Moran’s personal account.
Moran’s exchanges with Servello touched on a wide variety of topics, from speeches honoring ships marked for commissioning to think tank events, media engagements and congressional testimony, including Moran’s appearance before the U.S. Senate as part of his confirmation hearing to become CNO.
“He told us that ‘convenience was the driver’ for his continued use of personal e-mail, both for ease of use and for better ‘connectivity and reliability’ than Government communications,” the report states.
Investigators wrote that “convenience is not an acceptable reason” for using personal email to conduct Navy business.
In June 2018, after Servello was banished from the CNO’s inner circle and exiled to the Defense Media Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, he stood up his private consulting firm, according to the report.
The legality of a Navy PAO on active duty starting his own public relations business was the subject of an inquiry by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who wrote Richardson in February asking him if Servello had received permission set up shop.
Richardson stated that Servello’s supervisor “was aware of his outside employment activities and determined there was no interference with his official duties and his activities did not create an appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest,” the IG report states.
An ethics counselor at DMA also reviewed Servello’s moonlighting gig but those findings are redacted in the released IG report.
IG officials did not immediately respond to Navy Times questions asking why they cloaked the adviser’s opinion.
“We concluded that ADM Moran’s relationship with the Navy commander was not inappropriate with respect to the Navy commander’s outside employment,” investigators wrote.
But this summer, Richardson became “displeased” when he learned that Moran continued to consult with Servello, especially since CNO already had told lawmakers that the Navy took seriously the PAO’s behavior, according to the report.
CNO had been stung last year by a separate “Bad Santa” probe by IG, when investigators took him to task for a long lag between when allegations against Servello surfaced and his removal from Richardson’s staff.
“I made it very clear that we, Navy leadership, was not in contact with (Servello),” Richardson told investigators. “He was not advising us. He was not in the inner groups. He was not providing strategic or public affairs guidance.”
Servello retired on June 1. Eleven days later, an unidentified reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails between Moran and Servello exchanged on Moran’s personal account.
On June 16, Moran went to Richardson and presented CNO with a “stack” of the messages.
According to the IG report, Richardson briefed Navy Secretary Spencer eight days later. Spencer then referred the emails to IG investigators as potential proof of official misconduct.
“It should be well understood by leaders of our seniority that that’s not something that’s condoned…that’s not the way we like to do business,” Richardson told investigators.
“There was also the concern that as I said, this was not just…public business being done in a private e-mail, but it’s done with (Servello) who was very visibly disciplined and dismissed from my staff.”
Moran told investigators that his use of a personal email account began when he was chief of naval personnel in 2013 and that it allowed him to “get at and read things quickly in an airport, in a car, in a train, whatever it is” because government systems were unreliable.
Although he conceded discussing “flag matters” in his personal email back then, he made a special folder in the account for archiving the messages.
Moran conceded he failed to keep archiving those emails when he became VCNO, according to the report.
And although the name of Servello’s private consulting firm began appearing in his signature block on his emails, Moran said he never scrolled down to check that and believed his former PAO’s advice was coming from a Navy officer.
Investigators found the last email between Moran and Servello occurred on June 2, the day after Servello retired.
Moran said he had “tested the waters” but wasn’t able to hire Servello’s firm and their consultations could not continue beyond that point.
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.