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Wisconsin lawmakers consider tightening National Guard sexual misconduct oversight

A 2019 report found the Wisconsin National Guard for years defied federal law, regulations and policies on handling sexual misconduct complaints — a legislative committee has drafted three bills in response.

Associated Press

May 31, 2023

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Don Donbar speaks into  a wireless microphone held in his right hand and gestures with his left hand in a room with a row of flags in the background.

Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar addressed members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard on Oct. 4., 2019 at Volk Field. Dunbar resigned from his position as the state's adjutant general in December 2019 as the National Guard Bureau released a report that found Wisconsin National Guard commanders between 2009 and 2019 improperly kept sexual assault complaints to themselves. (Credit: Vaughn R. Larson / Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs)

AP News

By Todd Richmond, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Lawmakers are considering a package of legislation that would tighten prohibitions on sexual assault within the Wisconsin National Guard after a scathing federal report found commanders had for years been flouting federal requirements for handling complaints.

A study committee made up of legislators, district attorneys and military veterans began working on legislation last summer to tighten oversight of sexual assault complaints within the Wisconsin National Guard. The state Assembly’s military affairs committee was began the process toward floor votes with a public hearing on the bills on May 31.

“The incidents that brought about the study committee were uncalled for,” Paul Fisk, chair of the American Legion Wisconsin’s legislative council, told a reporter outside the hearing after registering in favor of the bills. “It shows a lack of leadership on the part of the military structure. (The legislation) is a step forward.”

The proposals come after the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C, released a blistering report in December 2019 that found Wisconsin National Guard commanders between 2009 and 2019 improperly kept sexual assault complaints to themselves rather than passing them along to the national bureau for investigation. The Wisconsin National Guard’s commander, Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, resigned just as the report was released.

Sexual misconduct has been a long-standing problem within the U.S. military. The Department of Defense received 8,942 reports of sexual assault in fiscal year 2022, up about 0.8% from the 8,866 reports it received in 2021 and 14% from the 7,816 reports tracked in 2020, according to the department’s reports tracking sexual assault.

Dunbar’s resignation was the culmination of a monthslong investigation into sexual assaults within the Wisconsin National Guard.

The probe began after U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin received complaints in 2018 from Wisconsin Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jay Ellis about high-ranking officers doing little to address sexual harassment and assault complaints within the 115th Fighter Wing’s security squadron dating back to 2002.

Baldwin asked the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations to look into Ellis’ allegations. The National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations ultimately agreed to look into the matter. The office released its findings in December 2019.

The report found that commanders launched internal investigations rather than refer complaints to local police and the national bureau, as required by Defense Department regulations. They also used poorly trained investigators who sometimes falsely presented themselves as bureau investigators, failed to track complaints or enter them in a Defense Department database and didn’t note substantiated sexual offenses in offenders’ evaluation records, according to the report.

Dunbar resigned at Gov. Tony Evers’ request hours before the report was released to the media.

Wisconsin law allows the Legislature’s attorneys to establish committees in even-numbered years to study pressing issues and recommend legislation. Prompted by media coverage of Dunbar’s resignation, they formed a committee in July 2022 to study sexual misconduct in the Wisconsin National Guard. Members included legislators from both parties, district attorneys from Ozaukee and Clark counties and military veterans.

The legislation the study committee developed would clarify that civilian authorities have primary jurisdiction to prosecute sexual assault, sexual misconduct and other crimes committed by Wisconsin National Guard members.

It also would adopt provisions from the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibiting officers and recruiters from engaging in prohibited sexual activity with soldiers they’re training or applicants for military service. Consent would not be a viable legal defense.

Sexual harassment and retaliation against complainants would be prohibited. The Guard would have to publish a policy online that ensures victims are treated with respect and dignity.

Commanders would have to submit annual reports to the governor and Legislature detailing the number of sexual assault and misconduct cases within the Wisconsin National Guard over the preceding year. They also would be required to build a database to track misconduct cases.

Ellis said in an email to The Associated Press that he has retired from the military and moved to Texas. He said that some of his fellow veterans from his unit still refuse to speak to him and he is trying to put the entire experience behind him. He said the new bills look like “well-meaning change” but “implementing will be the real test.”

The hearing on the bills lasted less than half an hour. The study committee’s chairman, Republican state Rep. Tony Kurtz, a former Army helicopter pilot, was the only one who testified and he spoke strictly about the bills’ content. He told a reporter after he finished his testimony that he doesn’t know if anyone can stop sexual misconduct in the military but the bills are a start.

Asked after the hearing if the military affairs committee would vote on the bills and send them on to the full Assembly, the panel’s chairperson, Republican Rep. James Edming, replied by saying that he supports the bills.

“You should not have to go to work in the morning and worry about someone looking over your shoulder and accusing you of something you didn’t do,” Edming said. “But if there’s something going on, you bet. No man or woman should have to go to work and put up with (expletive) where they’re harassed in any shape or form.”

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