Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, 17th Coast Guard District commander, will address his command in Sitka today at an “All Hands” meeting. He will discuss the so-called “Final Action Memorandum” (FAM) concerning the accident involving CG-6017, which resulted in the deaths of three crew members, the destruction of the Jayhawk helicopter and charges, now dismissed, leveled against the sole survivor and co-pilot, Lt. Lance Leone.
It is important to ask Adm. Ostebo and the Coast Guard senior leadership the same question lawyer Joseph Welch asked Sen. Joe McCarthy during the famous Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, “Have you no sense of decency?” Welch’s question to Sen. McCarthy was prompted by the senator taking liberties with half-truths while at the same time accusing a young lawyer of assisting the Communist Party, a certain career-ending accusation.
Adm. Ostebo, in briefing the Coast Guard’s FAM, does not merely follow McCarthy’s precedent of half-truths, he will commit a far more serious blow to truth: he will disregard evidence demonstrating Lt. Leone’s innocence and purposefully shield Coast Guard leadership from accountability for egregious lapses of safety concerns. By its own rules, the FAM is a document used by the Coast Guard to summarize the usually lengthy Administrative Investigation Manual (AIM). Coast Guard regulations indicate the FAM summarizes only the AIM and does not account for any other evidence developed by other investigations. This procedure allows the Coast Guard senior leadership to willfully disregard clear evidence that exonerates Lt. Leone and the crew, apparently because the logical inference would place accountability for this accident squarely on the Coast Guard leadership.
The AIM was finished on Nov. 11, 2010. According to the lead investigator, there has been no additional investigative activity since then. In September 2011, Adm. Ostebo, contrary to the opinion of Lt. Leone’s commanding officer, caused criminal charges to be sent to an Article 32 investigation, similar to a grand jury. It was at this time that Lt. Leone’s defense team found and developed evidence that demonstrated that senior Coast Guard leadership recklessly failed to mark properly the 1,900-foot span of wires that ensnared CG-6017 in July 2010.
In addition, the defense found and developed evidence that showed the Coast Guard leadership’s blatant disregard for safety warnings voiced by one of its own, the officer in charge of the boat station that had responsibility for the upkeep of the wires. He testified clearly that in the year prior to the fatal mishap he notified his chain of command that the wires were inadequately marked and asked that they be fixed, because he worried the wires posed a grave risk to aviators.
The AIM mentions that the wires were invisible to the crew. The Coast Guard’s article 32 investigator, a senior Coast Guard military judge, found that “reasonable grounds do not exist” to link Lt. Leone with the deaths of his fellow crew members. At the article 32 stage of the process, the prosecution need only show a reasonable basis for the charges, not evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This officer added that a “reasonable” co-pilot doing Lt. Leone’s job would not have identified the wires as a hazard along the flight path, since Lt. Leone had charted a course and set it on the autopilot, which would have completely gone around and above any hazards.
Yet the FAM does not use this evidence. In fact, Adm. Ostebo expands the FAM by finding that Lt. Leone directly contributed to the deaths of the crew while charting a course that headed directly into the wires. Both assertions are false.
Why does the Coast Guard single out Lt. Leone? I can only assume that it believed that these actions would not be subject to the scrutiny of the court of public opinion. Yet, it is here that the actions of Coast Guard senior leadership must be judged.
The Coast Guard leadership willfully disregards and omits evidence that points to the failure of accountability of the same leadership. The Coast Guard’s answer to its reckless failure to mark the span of wires properly is simply that any evidence that properly marked wires would have prevented this accident is “speculative.” This is the epitome of bureaucratic arrogance! Faceless leaders make findings on an incomplete and biased report. What is not speculation is that the Coast Guard’s failure to mark the wires insured that the crew would never see the wires.
Why would the Coast Guard use its considerable skill to castigate the crew of CG-6017 and single out the co-pilot, Lt. Leone, for blame? Perhaps the answer can be provided by the commandant, Adm. Robert Papp, who so desperately wants “accountability.” Can the answer be provided by Adm. Ostebo, who wants to give Adm. Papp what the commandant wants most — an aviator held accountable. But it may be much simpler than that. If Lt. Leone is made accountable, the Coast Guard can absolve itself from the horrible reality that its own faceless bureaucracy negligently failed to mark wires that now account for three downed aircraft and three of its own dead.
Therefore, like Mr. Welch some 60 years prior, I must ask Adm. Papp, the Coast Guard senior leadership and Rear Adm. Ostebo: “Have you no sense of decency? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
John M. Smith is a retired U.S. Army colonel and Coast Guard Lt. Lance Leone’s attorney.