Top U.S. military aide charged government for thousand-dollar visit to Italian strip club, Pentagon says
For the past year, one of the biggest secrets at the Pentagon has been what prompted Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to suddenly fire his top military aide.
Carter unexpectedly removed Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Lewis from his post in November for unspecified “misconduct” and ordered the Defense Department inspector general to investigate. The announcement came as a shock to many at the Pentagon, in part because three-star generals are rarely cashiered or disciplined, but mostly because Lewis was Carter’s handpicked selection for the position and had worked for him in other jobs.
On Thursday, the inspector general’s office released the findings of its investigation. Lewis, it said, had misused his government credit card while on an official overseas trip with Carter, made a false statement about the expenses, drank too much in public and engaged in “improper interactions with females” by drinking and socializing too closely with subordinates.
The investigation follows other recent scandals involving senior U.S. military officers, including an admiral indicted in an epic corruption case, an Army general court-martialled for illicit sexual behaviour in two war zones, and an Air Force nuclear commander who went on a multi-day drunken bender during an official visit to Moscow.
The inspector general’s report suggests that investigators originally suspected the general of consorting with prostitutes and strippers while accompanying Carter on official visits to Rome and Seoul last year. Investigators accused Lewis of visiting a red-light district in Seoul known as “Hooker Hill” and of patronizing the Cica Cica Boom club in Rome, which they said advertised lap dances and a “sexy show.”
The report found that Lewis tried to use his personal debit card to pay for US$1,755 in expenses at the club in Rome. When it was rejected, he returned to his hotel room – down the hall from where Carter was staying – along with a female employee from the club so he could retrieve his government credit card to settle the bill.
In the end, investigators found no clear evidence that he had hired prostitutes or strippers. In a written rebuttal presented to the inspector general in August, Lewis said he had an innocent explanation for both episodes and criticized investigators for jumping to conclusions.
In South Korea, he said, he never went to Hooker Hill. While investigators said he used his government credit card to pay for $1,120 in expenses – including a whopping $469 in tips – at a nightclub known as the Candy Bar, Lewis said that charges were fraudulent and that the signatures on the receipts were not his.
He acknowledged visiting a dance club in Rome, saying it was not Cica Cica Boom but rather “a high-end establishment with a respectable clientele.” He acknowledged using his government credit card to pay his bill but said he immediately repaid the charges when he returned to Washington.
In his rebuttal, Lewis accused investigators and witnesses of taking “statements and situations out of context to paint me in the worst light possible.” He added, “It is clear that this investigation’s primary purpose is to validate a publicized decision” made by Carter to fire him, “whether the evidence supports the findings or not.”
Investigators, however, went to unusual lengths to confirm the allegations. They interviewed two unnamed Pentagon officials who had seen Lewis leave his Rome hotel late at night. Curious about what he was up to, they followed him at a close distance as he walked toward Cica Cica Boom.
Although they did not actually see him enter the building, the address listed on Lewis’s $1,755 credit card receipt matched that of the club.
An agent with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service later visited Cica Cica Boom and took photographs showing that the club had a stage with stripper poles and a lap-dance chair. The agent also interviewed Italian law enforcement authorities familiar with the club who said that there was no doubt about what kind of place it was and that “an individual would have to be oblivious to not know or question the number of attractive women trying to get attention and drinks.”
Sir, respectfully, you’re being really stupid. Don’t do this
The inspector general’s office has given its report to the Army, where senior leaders will decide whether to discipline Lewis. Regardless, his military career is probably over. After he was removed from the job as Carter’s senior military assistant, he was reassigned to the Army and had his rank reduced to two-star general.
In a statement Thursday, Carter said he had been briefed about the results of the investigation but would withhold further comment until the Army reviews the case.
“As I said when I first learned about allegations of misconduct against Maj. Gen. Lewis and removed him as my senior military assistant, I expect the highest possible standards of conduct from the men and women in this department, particularly from those serving in the most senior positions,” Carter said. “There is no exception.”
Investigators concluded that Lewis, who is married, also acted inappropriately with female colleagues on multiple occasions, including on an overseas trip with Carter shortly before he was fired.
Witnesses told investigators that on a business trip with Carter to Hawaii in November, for example, Lewis spent time alone with an enlisted female soldier, including in his hotel room and on the beach.
An unnamed Pentagon official who worked closely with Lewis said she discovered the pair hugging each other in his hotel room and tried to break it up by saying: “Sir, respectfully, you’re being really stupid. Don’t do this.” She said Lewis ignored her.
The enlisted soldier told investigators that Lewis later backed her against a wall in his room and that she thought he wanted to kiss her, so she left.
I acknowledge that I made some of the mistakes identified in this report. Others, I strongly contest
According to the report, Lewis acknowledged that he consumed 11 alcoholic drinks over seven hours that night and that he had spent time with the soldier. But he denied acting improperly and said there was no physical contact.
A few days earlier, during a visit by Carter and his delegation to Malaysia, witnesses told investigators that Lewis had cozied up to a female civilian subordinate at the hotel’s executive lounge, where they touched arms and shared a cigar. Witnesses described the encounter as “extremely intimate” and said it “did not seem innocent.”
In his written rebuttal, Lewis said investigators’ description of the Malaysia incident “paints an inaccurate and unfair picture” and denied any impropriety.
In a statement released by his attorney Thursday, Lewis said that during his 33-year Army career, “I have always taken full responsibility and been accountable for my actions, and I do so today as well. I acknowledge that I made some of the mistakes identified in this report. Others, I strongly contest.”