The acting secretary of the Navy and the admirals in charge of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Naval Air Forces, Naval Air Forces Atlantic — plus the civilian attorney for retired SEAL Eddie Gallagher — played their parts in a vast conspiracy to cover up institutional racism inside the sea service by administratively ruining a lieutenant aviator, a federal lawsuit claims.
Filed Wednesday in a bid to derail an ongoing investigation into Lt. Steven E. “Minjah” Shaw, the complaint names Acting Secretary Thomas B. Modly, Adm. Christopher Grady, Vice Adm. DeWolfe “Bullet” Miller III, Rear Adm. Roy “Trigger” Kelly and attorney Timothy Parlatore, who represents four officers who tried to discipline the junior aviator for alleged safety violations involving carrier landings.
Shaw’s lawsuit claims that he became a whistleblower in 2017 while bringing to light the now-banned practice of student pilots paying “bottle bets” with top shelf booze to landing signal officers grading how well they landed on aircraft carriers, plus assisting two minority students who alleged institutional racism plagued their flight school training.
“Once the Navy learned Lt. Shaw made this information available outside the Navy, the Navy undertook a deliberate and far reaching scheme to undermine his credibility and destroy his Naval career through the pursuit of a retaliatory (Command Directed investigation) and various administrative actions intended to strip him of a security clearance, his Naval Aviator wings, promotion, and reputation,” the complaint alleges.
Several of Shaw’s past commanders have disagreed, contending that they tried to discipline him after they found out he was teaching a potentially deadly landing technique to impressionable students at Strike Fighter Squadron 106, the F/A-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.
Shaw arrived at VFA-106 in late 2016 but never passed a single qualification to become an instructor pilot, a process his commanders claim takes about six months to finish.
Shaw’s attorney, retired Marine Maj. Eric S. Montalvo, told Navy Times by telephone that’s because of the Navy, which “sidelined” him through every administrative action possible in order to destroy him.
In a Thursday afternoon hearing in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Shaw sought temporary restraining orders to halt both a Fleet Forces probe targeting his alleged misconduct and ongoing efforts by Parlatore to convince federal lawmakers and government watchdog agencies to investigate what he claims is a botched Pentagon Inspector General inquiry into senior leaders at VFA-106.
Shaw’s complaint accuses Parlatore of libeling him in a series of letters to federal agents and lawmakers questioning how the lieutenant came to possess copies of his XO’s personal notebook and whether a patent filed by Shaw seems to borrow technology from defense contractor Boeing.
Parlatore’s clients in turn have accused Shaw of teaching potentially deadly landing procedures to student pilots while “weaponizing” the congressional and IG complaint system to paralyze the Gladiators’ operations for years and kill the careers of any superior officer who dares to try to discipline him.
Parlatore’s letters have shared what appears to be a morale patch created by Shaw that shows a spear impaling a Gladiator helmet, a violent spoof on VFA-106′s official insignia that allegedly was given to junior students who followed flying lessons off the official syllabus taught by the lieutenant.
The federal attorneys representing the Navy agreed to stay the Fleet Forces probe into Shaw’s alleged misconduct until they can draw up a schedule for filing briefings with the court.
District Judge Randolph D. Moss seemed concerned about restraining Parlatore’s efforts to advocate for his clients — Cmdr. Martin Weyenberg, Cmdr. Brandon Scott and Marine Lt. Col. Michael Nesbitt from VFA-106 and Cmdr. Bryan Roberts, the former officer in charge of the U.S. Navy Landing Signal Officer School.
But those four clients aren’t named in Shaw’s lawsuit.
Although Shaw urged the court to block Parlatore from circulating letters questioning his capabilities as a pilot and conduct as an officer, the pages have been entered into evidence, making them public records anyone can download for a small fee.
To Parlatore, the irony of Shaw’s lawsuit is that it seeks to stop the attorney and his clients from requesting help from the IG and Congress, the very actions the lieutenant claims triggered reprisals by Navy leaders to silence him.
“Lt. Shaw’s lawsuit has nothing to do with racism,” said Parlatore shortly after leaving the courthouse on Thursday. “That’s pure distraction. This has everything to do with Lt. Shaw’s desire to teach a dangerous method to land on an aircraft carrier instead of just getting himself qualified to instruct students.”
Echoed in Shaw’s own lawsuit, Parlatore pointed out that the lieutenant had been told by superiors at VFA-131 not to teach potentially dangerous “F-18 Ball Flying Techniques” to fellow aviators, long before he became a whistleblower at VFA-106.
Parlatore said Shaw repeatedly violated that lawful order and has only himself to blame, not the Navy.
Parlatore also brought up the Navy’s decision to pull Shaw’s security clearance following allegations that the lieutenant brought a recording device into classified flight simulators to get footage he later shared with others.
Shortly before the hearing kicked off, Shaw’s attorney Montalvo strongly disagreed, telling Navy Times that the disciplinary actions against the lieutenant are a “non-issue and a pretext” to silence a good officer blowing the whistle on institutional military racism.
“The only reason we’re even talking about Shaw is because the Navy was involved in racist activity,” said Montalvo.
Shaw’s complaint takes direct aim at Vice Adm. Miller III, the “Air Boss” in charge of Navy aviation, accusing him of initially substantiating the claims of racism perpetrated against the two student pilots before remanding the case “for further investigation allowing them to to become unsubstantiated."
Citing the ongoing litigation, Navy officials declined comment.
Montalvo told Navy Times that he has a recording of a telephone conversation that helps prove military leaders quashed the true findings of the racism investigation.
As for the charge that his client paralyzed the training squadron with numerous IG complaints and congressional inquiries, Montalvo blamed Parlatore’s clients.
“It’s no longer functioning because it’s engaging in the very thing he’s talking about,” the Marine veteran said.
Shaw’s recent fight against the Navy has been largely successful.
On Dec. 16, Gregory J. Slavonic — the 18th U.S. assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs — voided the command investigation directed by Cmdr. Weyenberg and Lt. Col. Nesbitt that was overseen by LSO Roberts, ruling it “invalid because it was ordered for retaliatory purpose and was conducted in a retaliatory manner,” a finding that echoed two IG reports.
But Weyenberg, Roberts and Nesbitt told Navy Times that the IG investigations were deeply flawed and they were denied a chance to give their sides of the story, a problem Parlatore said Slavonic repeated.
Shaw’s former commanders insist the Pentagon’s IG never disputed that they were right about the lieutenant’s alleged misconduct, only questioning their motives for investigating it in the first place.
They also point to Shaw’s Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board results, which recommended that the lieutenant be removed from flight status.
But Slavonic nixed Shaw’s FNAEB, too.
Fleet Forces got roped into Montalvo’s lawsuit because Slavonic took the investigation into Shaw’s alleged misconduct out of the hands of naval aviators and gave it to Adm. Grady’s Norfolk-based command.
He tasked Grady’s Fleet Forces solely with determining if Shaw unlawfully recorded simulator sessions or conducted unauthorized training, including the allegedly dangerous Velocity Vector techniques, to students.
To Montalvo, however, this supposedly new “clean investigation” isn’t clean at all because it still has the dirty fingers of the Navy all over it and he wants it stopped.
Shaw’s lawsuit accuses Grady, a career surface warfare officer, of illegally conspiring with aviators Vice Adm. Miller and Rear Adm. Kelly to retaliate against the lieutenant.
“The initial investigation was contrary to law; the second CDI is similarly contrary to the law,” Montalvo wrote in the complaint. “Accordingly, the second CDI should be put aside.”
The judge took no action to do that on Thursday.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.