WASHINGTON – The head of U.S. European Command has been cleared of misconduct after a lengthy Pentagon investigation into travel and expense questions that derailed his chances last year of becoming the Navy's top officer, according to senior U.S. defense officials.
A Pentagon inspector general's report found that Adm. James Stavridis failed to exercise enough oversight of his staff and made several record-keeping and reimbursement errors, including for trips he took with his wife, daughter and mother.
After reviewing the IG report, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus concluded that Stavridis did not misuse his office. Instead, Mabus attributed most of the 10 allegations to reporting and accounting missteps that Stavridis quickly corrected.
"I have determined that Adm. Stavridis never attempted to use his public office for private gain nor did he commit personal misconduct," Mabus said in a memo responding to the IG report. Instead, he said the problems "reflect poor attention to administrative detail by the office." The memo was obtained by The Associated Press.
Officials provided details about the investigation on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about a report that has not yet been released publicly.
The only action taken by Mabus was a discussion with Stavridis about the need to have better oversight and to improve reporting procedures and documentation requirements for travel expenses. Stavridis' current job, which also includes his position as NATO supreme allied commander, is not affected.
The most significant disagreement between the inspector general's report and Mabus' conclusions was over Stavridis' use of a military aircraft to attend a dinner in Dijon, France. The IG concluded that the trip to a dinner sponsored by a wine society provided mainly social and cultural benefits for Stavridis, and said the admiral should have sought permission to attend the event.
Mabus disagreed, and instead concurred with Stavridis' argument that the Dijon trip was an official event because he gave a speech in full uniform and spent several hours meeting there with France's chief of defense. He said the time with the French military leader was valuable and consistent with Stavridis' NATO duties.
"We do not contend that Adm. Stavridis' attendance was not beneficial to NATO and the United States," the IG report said. "However, we are not persuaded that those benefits justified his attendance at the event in an official status."
Mabus did not dispute the other allegations. Instead, he concluded that those issues were resolved, and that Stavridis had either quickly corrected the problems or repaid any additional money needed.
The investigation was triggered by an anonymous complaint. The IG said it reviewed documentation and did interviews that covered more than 150 trips taken by Stavridis. The IG found that four of those trips raised questions, and it ultimately determined that one of them — to Dijon — was not for primarily official purposes and therefore did not warrant the use of military aircraft.
For the most part, the other issues raised by the IG were minor missteps, including Stavridis' failure to provide proper documentation for travel expenses. The IG questioned whether Stavridis submitted all of the appropriate flight costs for his wife when she accompanied him on trips during which she did no official business. While Stavridis reimbursed the government for those flight costs, the report questioned whether the repayment totals for several trips were accurate.
Responding to the report, Stavridis acknowledged "administrative shortfalls" and added that, "The mistakes that were identified have been corrected now for many months and procedures are in place to ensure the rigorous administrative requirements that support my travel are fully executed."
It was also alleged that on several occasions Stavridis used his personal credit card rather than a government credit card for some expenses. It noted that he began using the government credit card when notified he was improperly using his own.
The report also raised questions about Stavridis' wife's use of government transportation for unofficial purposes. Stavridis argued that his predecessors said such use was common and acceptable. And the report found that he accepted several gifts that he did not report, including two guns that he later donated to the NATO military headquarters and the National Defense University, as well as two expensive pens that he used for a while, but when questioned by staff also later donated to NDU.
In his written response to the IG report, which was obtained by the AP, Stavridis said he has paid at least $13,000 for his wife and family members to travel with him, and said they only took seats that would have been empty. When it was discovered that some of the checks he had written to cover travel costs had not been cashed, he said he canceled them and reissued new checks, and then changed office procedures involving his travel.
"I have not attempted in any case to abuse my office for personal gain," Stavridis said. "Where the inspector general has discovered shortcomings in our administrative procedures, we have tried to correct those when they were exposed to us."
Mabus concluded that the issues were all resolved.
Still, the investigation had a crippling effect on Stavridis' career.
Stavridis rose rapidly through the Navy ranks and served as the senior military adviser — and frequent squash partner — for then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He headed U.S. Southern Command for three years and took over European Command in 2009.
Last year, he was a top contender for the job of chief of naval operations — the Navy's most senior military leader. But as rumors about the inspector general's investigation swirled last year, top Pentagon and U.S. leaders, including then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, decided not to recommend Stavridis for the Navy post.
The Stavridis investigation is the second IG report in recent months to target a top military commander, but it pales in comparison to the mid-August allegations against Gen. William "Kip" Ward.
Ward, who until early last year headed U.S. Africa Command, is accused of excessive unauthorized spending and travel, including lengthy stays at lavish hotels with his wife and staff.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is still reviewing the Ward case, and could force him to retire at a lower rank or make him repay some of the costs.
IG Report: http://apne.ws/VIWFVI
Navy Secretary Memo: http://apne.ws/UoGmNO
Lolita C. Baldor can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lbaldor