Navy investigating allegation of misconduct at Tailhook aviators convention in Reno

Just when the Navy had restored ties to the Tailhook Association of naval aviators, it is facing a new allegation of ''inappropriate conduct'' by service members attending a Tailhook convention in Nevada last week.

Though much less sensational than the 1991 Tailhook sex scandal that shook the Navy at its highest levels, the latest allegation has triggered a probe by the Navy's inspector general, officials said Friday.

Details were sketchy and the Navy would not release the name of the person who made the complaint.

In a brief written statement, the Navy said it is looking into an allegation of inappropriate conduct by a group of service members during an encounter in the Nugget Hotel in Sparks, Nev., with a civilian couple who were staying at the Nugget but were not attending the Aug. 17-20 Tailhook convention.

The Navy's chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Steve Pietropaoli, said the Navy would not release the name of the individual who lodged the complaint on a telephone hot line that had been set up after the 1991 incident. He also would not say what day the alleged incident took place. He said it came to the Navy's attention ''early this week.''

Pietropaoli said the man reported that he and his wife were in a crowded hallway in the hotel and that when the man asked the people - apparently service members attending the convention - to make room for the couple to pass, ''inappropriate comments'' were made to him and his wife.

The man also reported that someone in the group made inappropriate physical contact with his wife, although Pietropaoli was not more specific.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Greg Smith said the man who lodged the complaint said a senior Navy officer apologized to him in person, but the man considered it to be ''not sincere.'' The senior Navy officer, who was not identified by name, was at the hotel but not present during the confrontation, Smith said.

Smith said the circumstances of the apology, made the day after the alleged incident, will be part of the inspector general's investigation.

At the Nugget Hotel, spokesman Mike Greenan said a ''noise and profanity complaint'' was made last Friday night by a civilian couple staying at the hotel. ''Security investigated it, got everybody cleared out of the hallway,'' he said, adding that he was not certain this was the same incident as reported by the Navy.

Sparks Police Sgt. Sherman Box said the department received no reports from or calls to the Nugget in connection with Tailhook.

Lonnie McClung, a retired Navy captain and president of the Tailhook Association, said in a telephone interview Friday that his organization was surprised to hear about the complaint.

''As far as we knew the guys were fairly well behaved,'' he said. ''This taints it a little bit.''

McClung said he had no information to confirm the allegation, which he said was made on Tuesday. He said there were about 1,200 military members among the 2,000 who attended the convention and that hotel officials told him there were only two noise complaints during the four-day convention, both on Aug. 18.

''The hotel told us our behavior was exemplary,'' he said.

McClung said he did not believe the incident, if verified, would affect his group's relationship with the Navy.

''If this was Navy people involved, it's a Navy issue,'' McClung said. ''The Navy should deal with it the way they see fit.''

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, took a different view. She said Friday that if the allegation is proven true the Navy should withdraw formal recognition of the Tailhook Association, which she said would have been shown to exhibit a ''chronic disregard for human dignity.''

Just this year the Navy restored full ties to the association, and last week's convention in Sparks was the first time Navy and Marine Corps aviators were officially sanctioned to attend the convention since 1991.

Last year the Navy sent several senior representatives to the Tailhook convention as part of a review to determine whether the Navy should restore ties to the organization. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig announced in January, ''We've concluded that the time is right to restore ties.'' He said he was convinced that Tailhook's leaders had made a commitment to avoiding trouble of the kind that happened in 1991.

The Tailhook Association is named for the hook on an aircraft that snags an arresting cable on the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. As of last year, it had about 10,000 members, down from a 1991 peak of about 16,000.

Besides its annual conventions, which include professional seminars, the group sponsors college scholarships for children of former naval aviators and publishes a magazine on carrier aviation called Hook.

In the 1991 incident, dozens of female officers were groped by aviators attending parties during a three-day conference at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel. The Defense Department inspector general implicated 117 officers in various offenses, ranging from sexual assault to indecent exposure and other acts, and faulted the Navy's leaders for failing to stop the behavior.

The episode triggered the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett and the early retirement of Adm. Frank B. Kelso, then the chief of naval operations. It also led to lawsuits, multiple investigations and changes in the Navy - including more emphasis on ethics and sexual harassment awareness and an opening of more aviation opportunities for women.


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