Navy Probes Tailhook Allegation

Friday, August 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Navy said Friday it is investigating an allegation that service members attending a convention of the Tailhook naval aviators organization last week made ``inappropriate physical contact'' with a civilian woman.

Details were sketchy and the Navy would not release the name of the complainant.

But the case recalls the Tailhook Association's 1991 convention, which created a sex scandal that forced the resignation of the Navy's civilian chief and focused attention on sexual harassment throughout the military. The Navy cut its ties to the group after that incident, in which at least 90 indecent assaults took place.

Just this year the Navy restored full ties to the association, and the Aug. 17-20 convention at the Nugget Hotel in Sparks, Nev., was the first time Navy and Marine Corps aviators were officially sanctioned to attend the convention since 1991.

In a brief written statement, the Navy said the Inspector General's office is looking into an allegation of inappropriate conduct by a group of service members during an encounter in the hotel with a civilian couple who were staying at the Nugget but were not attending the Tailhook convention.

The Navy's chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Steve Pietropaoli, said the Navy would not release the name of the individual who lodged the complaint on a telephone hot line that had been set up after the 1991 incident. He also would not say what day the alleged incident took place. He said it came to the Navy's attention ``early this week.''

Pietropaoli said the man reported that he and his wife were in a crowded hallway in the hotel and that when he asked the people — apparently service members attending the convention — to make room for the couple to pass, ``inappropriate comments'' were made to him and his wife. The man also reported that someone in the group made inappropriate physical contact with his wife, although Pietropaoli was not more specific.

Sparks Police Sgt. Sherman Box said the department received no reports from or calls to the Nugget in connection with Tailhook.

Last year the Navy sent several senior representatives to the Tailhook convention as part of a review to determine whether the Navy should restore ties to the organization. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig announced in January, ``We've concluded that the time is right to restore ties.'' He said he was convinced that Tailhook's leaders had made a commitment to avoiding trouble of the kind that happened in 1991.

The Tailhook Association is named for the hook on an aircraft that snags an arresting cable on the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. As of last year, it had about 10,000 members, down from a 1991 peak of about 16,000.

Besides its annual conventions, which include professional seminars, the group sponsors college scholarships for children of former naval aviators and publishes a magazine on carrier aviation called Hook.

Ties with the Navy were severed in October 1991 after word got out about drunken sexual debauchery at the Las Vegas convention a month earlier. Female officers were groped by aviators attending parties during the three-day conference at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel. The Defense Department inspector general implicated 117 officers in various offenses, ranging from sexual assault to indecent exposure and other acts, and faulted the Navy's leaders for failing to stop the behavior.

The episode triggered the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett and the early retirement of Adm. Frank B. Kelso, then the chief of naval operations. It also led to lawsuits, multiple investigations and changes in the Navy — including more emphasis on ethics and sexual harassment awareness and an opening of more aviation opportunities for women.