EIGHT Marines face charges growing out of maintenance records for Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft

Friday, August 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Eight Marine officers implicated in the alleged falsification of maintenance records on the troubled Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft have been charged with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, officials said Friday.

The eight have been ordered to appear for an administrative hearing to answer the charges, said Maj. Bryan Salas, a Marine Corps spokesman.

Salas declined to identify any of the eight. He said their names would not be made public until Aug. 17, which is their deadline for deciding whether to proceed with the administrative hearing.

Any who refused to attend the hearing could be subject to actions by their commander, including an Article 32 hearing, a more formal procedure often likened to a grand jury proceeding in the civilian justice system.

In June, the Pentagon's chief investigator confirmed an allegation that the commander of the Marine Corps' V-22 Osprey squadron, Lt. Col. Odin Fred Leberman, falsified maintenance documents to exaggerate the aircraft's performance record. Leberman was relieved of duty the day the allegations became public in January.

The Pentagon inspector general's investigation also concluded that other Marines knew of the deception but failed to report it.

The Marine Corps said the falsified records played no part in two Osprey crashes last year that killed 23 Marines.

After the second crash, the Navy grounded the fleet and delayed a decision on whether to begin full-scale production. Defense Undersecretary Pete Aldridge Jr. decided in May to authorize production but at the lowest possible rate to ensure that improvements could continue to be made.

Salas declined to say whether Leberman is among the eight charged with violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Salas said that after reviewing the results of the inspector general's investigation, the commander of Marine Corps Forces Atlantic, Lt. Gen. Raymond P. Ayres Jr., notified the eight officers that he would hold an administrative hearing for their alleged roles in the falsification of records.

He also issued a nonpunitive ``letter of caution'' to one additional officer who had not previously been implicated by the inspector general, Salas said. He did not identify the recipient of the letter.

The charges cited by Ayres:

_Violation of a lawful standing general order.

_Dereliction of duty.

_Making a false official statement.

_Conduct unbecoming an officer.

Salas said none of the eight officers was charged with all four violations, although some were charged with more than one. He would not be more specific about which officers were charged with which violations.

Under the administrative proceeding arranged by Ayres, the maximum punishment for the charges is a punitive reprimand; a limited restriction to quarters for up to 60 days or arrest in quarters for up to 30 days; and forfeiture of one-half of the officer's pay for two months, Salas said.

The administrative hearing to be held by Ayres is a fact-finding procedure. The accused Marines may present evidence on their behalf in an effort to rebut the charges. Ayres would then consider the facts and circumstances and either dismiss all or part of the charges; impose an administrative punishment such as a reprimand if he finds the accused guilty; or refer all charges to a court-martial.

Any of the accused Marines has a right to refuse the administrative hearing and instead request a court-martial.

The Osprey aircraft uses revolutionary technology to take off like a helicopter, rotate its propellers to a horizontal position and cruise like an airplane. Last year two Ospreys crashed, killing a total of 23 Marines. Despite the crashes, the Marines say they are confident the technology works. An independent panel that reviewed the program this spring agreed but recommended important design changes.

The investigation of alleged records falsification was begun in January by the Marine Corps' inspector general but transferred to the Defense Department inspector general a short time later because the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James L. Jones, wanted to avoid any perception of service bias.

In an anonymous letter to the office of the secretary of the Navy on Jan. 12, a self-identified Osprey mechanic at Marine Corps Air Station in New River, N.C., wrote that aircraft unable to fly had been reported ``as being up, as in full mission-capable. This type of deception has been going on for over two years.''