DoD IG: Moran Misused Personal Emails For Business; No Misconduct in Relationship with Retired Commander

August 28, 2019 1:45 PM - Updated: August 28, 2019 2:57 PM
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran speaks to sailors during an all-hands call at Commander, Fleet Activities Chinhae, Korea on Sept. 11, 2018. US Navy Photo

The Defense Department Inspector General found that former Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran violated DoD policy in using a personal email account to conduct official DoD communications, but it did not find that he broke any policies regarding his ongoing relationship with a Navy commander accused of sexually harassing three female junior officers.

DoD IG instead called this a “performance issue” rather than misconduct.

The IG report, dated Aug. 26 and released publicly today, states that on June 24, the Department of the Navy referred emails from Moran’s personal Gmail account to DoD IG for investigation into potential senior officer misconduct, both as it relates to use of email and continued contact with the commander.

At that time, Moran had already been confirmed by the Senate to serve as the next chief of naval operations. On July 7, Moran informed Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer that he would decline his appointment to serve as the next CNO, and on July 9 he requested to retire.

On the issue of using a personal email account to conduct official business, the IG report notes that a review of 572 pages of emails from Moran’s Gmail account – dated December 2016 through June 2019 – showed 180 email conversation threads that comprised 472 individual email messages, between Moran and 13 Navy-related personnel.

“These individuals were Navy military, civilian, and contract employees assisting ADM Moran with his official duties as VCNO as well as with strategic messaging, congressional testimony, media engagements, and Senate confirmation hearings as he prepared to become the next CNO,” reads the report.

Of note, the commander accused of sexual harassment – Chris Servello, who formerly served as a spokesman to both Moran and CNO Adm. John Richardson and was not directly named in the IG report – was included in many of these emails, despite having already been punished for his inappropriate behavior towards female junior officers and Richardson having told lawmakers that Servello would no longer be allowed to remain in a position of influence among Navy leadership.

Of those emails, 174 contained advice on the contents of speeches Moran was preparing to give or articles he was preparing to submit. Another 171 emails related to media stories and publications about the Navy, and 110 contained “discussion and consideration of future Navy strategy, global hotspots requiring greater or lesser Naval presence, and Professional Military Education reform.” Seventeen were considered general correspondence and mentoring emails.

Moran emphasized in his response to the IG report that none of the emails contained classified information.

The IG report includes several examples:

  • “On May 16, 2018, a member of ADM Moran’s staff sent an e-mail to ADM Moran, copied to the Navy commander (accused of sexual harassment), containing a multi-point brief regarding a plan to improve Navy education.”
  • “On January 12, 2019, a member of ADM Moran’s staff sent an e-mail to ADM Moran and copied the Navy commander about an outline of a strategy for ADM Moran’s actions as the future CNO. The outline discussed the topics of dynamic leadership changes within the Office of the Secretary of Defense; Navy challenges from China and Russia; effects of a networked world; Navy readiness; how to synchronize the Operational Navy staff with the CNO’s staff; and aligning ADM Moran’s message with the Fleet Commanders over the next six months. ADM Moran responded to the group to consider the content of an e-mail he sent to the Chief of Naval Personnel discussing the same subject in which he stated that his goal was to ‘hit the deck running’ as the new CNO.”
  • “On September 6, 2017, the Navy commander sent an e-mail to ADM Moran containing his proposed response to a reporter asking for the Navy commander’s comments about the investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against the Navy commander. The Navy commander wrote, ‘Sir, see below.. .[Reporter]’s question and the statement I intend to provide.’ ADM Moran replied, ‘About all you can say.’”

The IG report concludes that “ADM Moran used his personal e-mail account to conduct official DoD communications, in violation of DoD policies described in this report.”

“We reviewed ADM Moran’s personal e-mails and determined that he used his personal e-mail account to discuss official DoD communications with the former Navy commander and other Navy military, civilian, and contract personnel. The content of these official DoD communications covered a variety of topics, including pending speeches for U.S. Navy ship commissionings and for defense think tanks about force shaping and Navy power projection throughout the world; media articles about sailor retention and Navy personnel policy; future Navy strategies and professional military education; strategic messaging for Navy personnel, industry, and academia; congressional testimony related to Navy readiness and operations; media engagements regarding Navy leadership efforts to prevent future ship collisions; strategic areas of the world where the Navy should increase or withdraw its presence; and ADM Moran’s Senate confirmation hearings to become the next CNO.”

“ADM Moran admitted to us that he used his personal e-mail account to correspond with the Navy commander and others on official DoD communications. He told us that ‘convenience was the driver’ for his continued use of personal e-mail, both for ease of use and for better ‘connectivity and reliability’ than Government communications systems provided,” the report continues, noting that “convenience is not an acceptable reason to use personal e-mail” for official business.

“With regard to the use of personal e-mail to conduct official DoD communications, we recommend that the Secretary of the Navy consider any additional appropriate action regarding ADM Moran,” it concludes.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran speaks to Sailors aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55) on Feb. 20, 2019. US Navy photo.

Regarding Moran’s ongoing contact with Servello even after the commander was accused of sexual harassment, dismissed from his job in the CNO’s office and allowed to retire after being moved to a job that did not involve supervision of junior officers, the IG report states that no rules were broken but that Spencer and Richardson’s concerns about the ongoing contact were valid.

Servello had worked for Moran multiple times throughout his career, and beginning in August 2015 he served as the spokesman for CNO Richardson. In December 2016, Servello “allegedly sexually harassed three females during and after a Christmas party in the Pentagon,” according to the report.

“The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigated these allegations. On April 26, 2017, after reviewing the results of three NCIS investigations related to the allegations, ADM Richardson decided to impose a non-punitive letter of caution (NPLOC), give the Navy commander an adverse fitness report, and remove the Navy commander (Servello) from the CNO’s personal staff. On August 18, 2017, ADM Richardson directed the immediate removal of the Navy commander from his personal staff and temporarily reassigned him to the Region Naval District Washington, Washington Navy Yard, while he waited for the Navy commander’s permanent change of duty orders.”

A separate DoD IG report looked into a four-month delay in Richardson removing Servello and found no misconduct. But when asked about the investigation in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in 2018, “ADM Richardson stated that the four month delay in removing the Navy commander from his staff after he had determined that administrative action was necessary, ‘may have sent a bad message, particularly to the survivors of the behavior,’” the report states.

Despite Servello being “very visibly disciplined and dismissed from my staff,” as Richardson put it in the IG report, Moran continued to not only keep in contact with Servello but to ask for his professional public affairs advice. Richardson added, according to the report, that “this was well beyond just a friend reaching out and helping a friend. This was legitimate high-level Navy strategic business being done and that’s – that was a much different relationship than I was aware of. I was unaware that was going on.”

According to the report, “ADM Richardson expressed concern that ADM Moran’s continued reliance on the Navy commander for public affairs advice even after the Navy commander was removed from ADM Richardson’s staff showed poor judgment and would send the wrong message to the public and Members of Congress about how seriously the Navy, and the CNO’s office, took the Navy commander’s inappropriate behavior towards junior female officers and a female civilian employee. ADM Richardson also told us that ADM Moran’s actions were contrary to assurances ADM Richardson had given personally to Members of Congress that the Navy commander would no longer be in a position of supervision or influence until his retirement. He stated, ‘I made it very clear that we, Navy leadership, was not in contact with [the Navy commander]. He was not advising us. He was not in the inner groups. He was not providing strategic or public affairs advice.’ ADM Richardson said he was displeased when he learned that not only was ADM Moran conducting ‘high-level official Navy business’ through personal e-mail, ADM Moran also was conducting this business ‘in an off-the-record manner’ with an officer who the Navy had publicly disciplined for inappropriate behavior towards junior female officers and a female civilian employee.”

Despite the optics of the situation, the IG report concludes that “we do not consider ADM Moran’s continued relationship with the Navy commander to be misconduct; rather, we consider it a performance issue. We found no applicable standard that prohibited ADM Moran from continuing his personal or professional relationships with the Navy commander after his removal from the CNO’s staff. However, we agree with the Secretary of the Navy’s and ADM Richardson’s consideration of this issue as a performance issue.”

A final issue of concern addressed in the report was that Servello had, after being kicked out of the CNO’s office but while still on active duty, created his own personal strategic communications firm called Provision Advisors.

Moran admitted during the IG investigation that he relied on Servello’s advice rather than the Navy public affairs apparatus because of their longstanding relationship and the fact that “I have a lot of respect for his intuition, and his insights, and his professional capabilities, his talent.” In contrast, Moran said that the Navy public affairs headquarters – called the Chief of Naval Information, or CHINFO, office – “was a mess” that couldn’t provide “good support.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, had inquired about the legality of Servello having this private firm while also remaining an active-duty naval officer. Richardson wrote back to her, noting that he was aware and that there was no “interference” between his official duties and this side business. The IG report adds that Servello had “sought and received ethics guidance from Navy attorneys” before setting up the company.

Though Moran admitted to relying on Servello for public affairs advice rather than relying on CHINFO, the IG report states “we found no evidence that ADM Moran hired the Navy commander or solicited his media relations guidance in the Navy commander’s private capacity, nor was ADM Moran aware that the Navy commander had changed his personal e-mail signature block to contain a reference to the consulting firm he founded. Therefore, we concluded that ADM Moran’s relationship with the Navy commander was not inappropriate with respect to the Navy commander’s outside employment.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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