FORT BRAGG, N.C. – An Army general brought back from Afghanistan to face court-martial on a series of sexual misconduct charges deferred entering a plea Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who served five combat tours, is headed to trial following a spate of highly publicized military sex scandals involving high-ranking officers that has triggered a review of ethics training across the service branches.
Sinclair was arraigned Tuesday at Fort Bragg on charges that include forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct, indecent acts, violating orders and adultery. When the judge invited Sinclair to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, he deferred through his attorney, who indicated the general would enter his plea at a later date.
The hearing continued with a defense motion to disqualify prosecutors over privileged emails erroneously sent to them by criminal investigators. The messages included exchanges between Sinclair and his lawyers, his wife and with a family friend who is an ordained minister.
Lt. Col. Jackie Thompson, the lead defense attorney, urged the military judge overseeing the case to disqualify the entire prosecution team and order the case to be reinvestigated from scratch.
"We're not asking for a walk," Thompson told the judge. "We're asking for a case that is free of taint."
The military judge, Army Col. James Pohl, has set the trial portion of the court-martial for May 13. He did not immediately rule on the defense motion to disqualify the prosecuting attorneys, all four of whom testified under oath they had not reviewed the privileged emails.
A 27-year Army veteran, Sinclair faces life in prison if convicted on the most serious offenses. It's rare for an Army general to face court-martial. There have been only two cases in recent years.
More commanders have lost their posts over sex. Of the 18 generals and admirals, from one star to four stars, fired in recent years, 10 lost their jobs because of sex-related offenses.
That tally does not include retired Army general David Petraeus, who was forced to resign as CIA director in November after he admitted to an affair with the woman who wrote the biography of his military career. The investigation of Petraeus also ensnared Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, over thousands of flirty emails he exchanged with a Tampa, Fla., socialite. On Tuesday, Pentagon officials said Allen had been cleared of inappropriate conduct.
At an evidentiary hearing for Sinclair in November, prosecutors presented testimony about his conduct with five women who were not his wife, including officers who served under his direct command. The charges involve activities when he was in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany and at installations in the United States.
Sinclair was deputy commander in charge of logistics and support for the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan before being relieved in May during the criminal investigation. He has been on special assignment since then at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
The female captain at the heart of the case said she carried on a three-year sexual relationship with Sinclair, a father of two. Adultery is a crime under military law, and the admission could end her career.
She testified at the evidentiary hearing that she repeatedly tried to break off the affair with Sinclair, who she says threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone about their frequent sexual liaisons in hotels, headquarters and war zones. The woman said she usually wanted to have sex with the general, though she said that on two occasions he exposed himself and physically forced her to perform oral sex, even as she sobbed.
The Associated Press does not publicly identify victims of alleged sexual assaults.
Two female officers who served with Sinclair also testified that they had given the general nude photos at his request.
Sinclair is also accused of possessing alcohol in a war zone and disobeying orders. Maj. Gen. James Huggins, Sinclair's superior officer in Afghanistan, testified he ordered Sinclair to cease contact with the female captain after she reported the affair. Sinclair is alleged to have willfully disobeyed that order by then calling the woman's phone.
Sinclair has not yet spoken publically about the charges against him. At the pretrial hearing, his defense lawyers conceded the affair with the female captain, while working to paint her as a liar trying to ruin the general's life and military reputation. During the hearings, they characterized her as a manipulative "back-stabber" who blamed others for her mistakes.
The general's wife, Rebecca Sinclair, has stayed away from court but went public with an opinion piece in The Washington Post. In that column, she said she was not condoning her husband's infidelity, but she said that a decade of war had taken a toll on military couples and brought pressure on their marriages.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rebecca Sinclair said her husband called her last spring to tell her about the affair and allegations, and she said they were trying to mend their relationship.
A New York public relations firm, MWW, has been hired to represent Sinclair and is working to promote the claim he is being railroaded by overzealous prosecutors and a scorned lover.
A website launched Tuesday, www.sinclairinnocence.com , seeks to portray the general in a positive light while making public selected documents from the court files intended to undermine the credibility of the lead prosecutor and accuser.
Spokesman Josh Zeitz of MWW said the firm's fees are being paid for by the Sinclairs and a nonprofit legal defense fund established by the general's "friends and supporters." Zeitz said he could not disclose the identities of the contributors.