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The pitfalls of power: Did Marine 2-stars abuse their authority or were they just careless?

Did 2-stars abuse their authority, or were they just a bit careless?

Feb. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, staff director for Headquarters Marine Corps, was the subject of a 2012 inspector general complaint alleging that he used subordinate Marines to carry out personal errands while serving as the top Marine in Korea.
Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, staff director for Headquarters Marine Corps, was the subject of a 2012 inspector general complaint alleging that he used subordinate Marines to carry out personal errands while serving as the top Marine in Korea. (Pfc. Glen Santy / Marine Corps)
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A Marine Corps IG investigaton concluded former Major Gen. Angela Salinas, director, Manpower Management Division, inappropriately encouraged a Marine to violate the Corps' uniform policy. (Cpl. David Flynn / Marine Corps)

To hear at least one Marine describe it, Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas was obsessed with having a subordinate who was readily recognizable as her aide. Specifically, she wanted the individual accompanying her to speaking engagements and other public events to wear an aiguillette, the braided cord worn across one’s shoulder to denote he or she is acting as a general’s aide-de-camp.

Salinas, who at the time oversaw Manpower and Reserve Affairs’ manpower management division in Quantico, Va., encountered some resistance when she asked the Marine to purchase an aiguillette. So she asked the command to order one. The request was denied because, in her role, Salinas did not rate an aide-de-camp. She asked instead if the command’s organizational table could be amended so she could have one.

No, she was told again. But Salinas bought an aiguillette anyway and authorized the Marine to wear it at one event. That prompted an anonymous complaint to the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office in December 2011, which turned over the matter to the Marine Corps IG a month later. A months-long investigation would conclude that Salinas, who retired last year after a trailblazing 39-year military career, inappropriately encouraged the Marine to violate the Marine Corps’ uniform policy and that she used subordinates for her personal errands.

In April 2012, a similar complaint was filed with the command inspector general for Marine Corps Forces Pacific against Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, then the top Marine in Korea. It, too, was referred to the Marine Corps IG. Among other things, Regner was accused of looking the other way when his subordinates would do personal tasks for him, like shining his shoes and washing his car — claims the IG would substantiate.

Regner was the subject of a Marine Corps Times cover story published in October after a 29-year enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Jayme Winders, filed an inspector general complaint alleging he was victimized by the Marine Corps’ top leaders after accusing Regner of wrongdoing. In July, the two-star was named staff director for Headquarters Marine Corps, where he continues to serve.

Marine Corps Times obtained copies of these reports Jan. 24 in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request submitted last year. The requests were made after retired Army Gen. David Patraeus had abruptly resigned from his post as director of the CIA amid revelations of his extra-marital affair, and as the Defense Department investigated the alleged misbehavior of several senior leaders throughout the military. The Washington Post, which also continues to cover this subject, has focused on the most egregious cases — those involving claims of sexual harassment and assault, destructive alcoholism and verbal abuse.

The investigations into Salinas and Regner highlight more of a gray area when it comes to military leadership. With every new rank comes more power, prestige and, ultimately, responsibility. In each instance, the inspector general determined that their subordinates performed duties outside the scope of their responsibilities.Career-killing offenses? Certainly not. But both cases underscore the importance of ensuring there is integrity at every level of leadership in the Corps, and especially among those tasked with setting the right example for those they outrank.

The Marine Corps’ commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, has made this a priority as the service regains its bearings and returns to a peacetime posture after more than a decade of combat. Since last spring, nearly a dozen Marine officers have lost their jobs for demonstrating poor judgment or for others’ missteps within their commands. This push for greater accountability has sent a shock wave through the ranks, but it’s necessary, Amos contends, as several high-profile incidents seem to indicate Marines have drifted from the strict adherence to discipline that’s expected of them.

A general responds

Marine Corps Times submitted questions to Regner about the IG’s determination and how, if at all, it’s influenced his leadership style moving forward. A spokesman said the general was unavailable to respond. But during the investigation, Regner said “when you’re a general, people want to do things, and you have to basically order them not to do those, otherwise, you find yourself in the situation I’m in today.”

Reached by phone, Salinas agreed with that assessment and spoke candidly about the challenges general officers can face when it comes to the relationships they develop with subordinates. Being the subject of an IG complaint made her pull back as a leader, Salinas said, because she didn’t want any of her actions to be misconstrued.

“It makes you very conscientious of the most simple of tasks,” Salinas told Marine Corps Times. “... And I think it changes your leadership style. I really withdrew myself and I found you couldn’t just be yourself in so many ways because it was really easy to see that somebody down the hall might not recognize a relationship as being a little bit different than maybe the one that you had with them.”

Perception plays a big role in such cases, Salinas said. She pointed to another area of the IG’s report about a pool of money to which she and other Marines in her office contributed for things like coffee creamer or the gummy bears Salinas said she liked to keep on hand. While the general always contributed to the fund, she said if someone saw Marines bringing a bunch of candy into her office, it might have appeared to be a gift. Indeed, the IG report examined whether the Marines purchasing the gummy bears did so as a personal favor, even though they told investigators she never demanded them.

Salinas’ determination to have one of her Marines wear the aiguillette also raised suspicions within the command. One witness interviewed by the IG likened it to an obsession. “Since she got there, she was really hot on wanting [name redacted] to wear that,” the witness said, according to the report. “[Salinas said] ‘... to me it’s like, ‘It’s just a damn rope. Come on.’ But [she] kept pressing.”

At the time of the complaint, Salinas was the highest ranking female officer in the Marine Corps. She was also the highest ranking Hispanic Marine. That meant fulfilling a lot of speaking engagements and appearing at public events, she said.

“You’re getting pulled in multiple directions trying to meet all these missions,” she added. “And everybody’s watching you run around like a crazy person and they’re just trying to help.”

That was one of the reasons she purchased the aiguillette for the Marine who was not her aide, Salinas said. She took the Marine to functions as a mentor, she said, to show them the life of a general officer. But they ran into some barriers since the Marine wasn’t recognized as her aide, she said.

“I paid for it and I authorized it, unbeknownst to me that I couldn’t do that,” Salinas said.

The IG’s report also looked at claims Salinas had Marines carrying out errands for a Cinco de Mayo party. Salinas said it was a command event, not a personal party she was hosting. But according to the report, a Marine researched Mariachi bands on official time. A Marine also was instructed to pick up, and later return, a margarita machine during work hours.

Salinas said that since all the Marines were attending the event, it was a party for them, and the lines blurred when they volunteered to chip in.

Regner’s report indicates he experienced similar confusion about what uniformed Marines could and could not do to help prepare for a command-run party. In August 2011, he was hosting a cookout for eight general officers participating in a bilateral exercise between the U.S. and South Korea.

Since he had assumed command in South Korea weeks prior, boxes of his household goods were just showing up. About eight Marines went to Regner’s house in uniform during working hours to help unpack boxes of kitchen items. They also laid out rugs, moved furniture, swept and cleaned, hung a decorative Japanese kimono on the wall, and set up a surround sound audio system for the party.

The Marines were not paid and Regner stated, according to the report, that they were performing official duties at his residence. His IG report also lists services Regner accepted from subordinates that weren’t tied to command functions. That included a subordinate picking up his laundry, starching his cover, polishing his shoes, regularly serving him coffee, filling his vehicle with gas and driving him places.

In both cases, the IG found that Salinas and Regner had violated Defense Department directive 5500.7R for misusing their subordinates.

A leader's many challenges

Michael Useem is a leadership expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which routinely sends students to Officer Candidates School at Quantico to help them develop team-building and decision-making skills.

Useem said it’s imperative for those rising through the ranks of any organization to recognize the boundaries they must keep when it comes to subordinates, especially as they achieve more powerful titles. An executive of a major corporation has shared that sentiment with Useem’s students, he said, as he detailed what it was like to go from the entry-level guy to upper levels of management.

“He found that as he moved up, his information became more rosy and his jokes became funnier,” Useem said. “People became more deferential and they tried only to give him good news and avoided giving him bad news.”

Salinas said as Marines move up in rank, they need to make sure they’re well-versed on the dos and don’ts that come with more responsibility. And they do need to recognize, like Useem suggested, that more and more people will try to help. Leaders need to make sure that not only do they stay in line, but remain aware of those trying to assist in order to make sure that they, too, aren’t overstepping.

A good way for leaders to get that kind of information is through 360-degree reviews, Useem said. The commandant said last year that he intends to develop such reviews for the service’s general officers, which means they will be reviewed not only by the generals who oversee them, but by peers and subordinates as well. The other services are expected to do the same, following the call from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Salinas said that if general officers see what subordinates think of their leadership style, that could be an effective tool; it gives those subordinates the opportunity to provide honest feedback about something that is making them uncomfortable.

“When it’s anonymous, there’s some credence to it, if it’s done with the intent that it’s designed to do,” she added.

Useem agreed that providing a climate in which Marines can trust the system, and the fact that the input is anonymous, is key to 360-degree reviews working the way they should. Subordinates also provide the best sense of what a leader’s true abilities are, he added.

“There’s academic research to back [that] up,” Useem said. “If you ask the question, ‘Which is the best predictor of future performance: what the subordinates say, what the peers say or what superiors say?’ generally speaking it’s the subordinates who have the best forecasting ability to indicate whether somebody’s leadership is good or less than good.”

Salinas stressed that while the reviews could be helpful, Marine Corps leaders shouldn’t alter their leadership styles out of fear of a lurking report.

“You shouldn’t have to not be the leader I think the United States Marine Corps makes us into,” she said. “We’ve always been the types of leaders Marines want to follow.”

That’s why it’s important to give leaders a chance for redemption, Useem said. If a complaint about them is raised, and they have an understanding of what went wrong and how to fix it, it shouldn’t mean the end of their career, he said.

While Salinas said she ended her 39-year career on a difficult note following this investigation, she said she wouldn’t trade her time working with Marines. The retired general broke through several barriers during her career as a female Marine, including becoming the first woman to be named commanding general of one of the Corps’ recruit depots in 2006. She was also the first female Hispanic Marine to be promoted to the rank of general officer.

After achieving such heights, she’s worried that this deep investigation into a few incidents will become her legacy.

“Personally it was disappointing, just because I felt like I let down the Marines,” she said. “... But I think it makes you think, because, listen, I served for 39 years and didn’t do anything wrong.”

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