WASHINGTON — The Air Force has stripped a retired four-star general of two ranks and docked him about $60,000 per year in pension payments after determining that he had coerced sex with a subordinate officer three times and told her that he would “deny it until the day he died,” USA TODAY has learned from documents and interviews.
The rare move means that retired Gen. Arthur Lichte, who had led the Air Mobility Command until 2009, will be demoted to major general and see his retirement pay dip from about $216,000 per year to $156,000. His case is the latest in a string of general officers to be sacked or demoted in the last year for sex scandals.
Lichte’s actions drew an extraordinary, stinging rebuke in a letter of reprimand in December from then-Air Force secretary Deborah James. James blasted Lichte for putting the officer “in a position in which she could have believed that she had no choice but to engage in these sex acts given your far superior grade, position, and significant ability to affect her career.”
James suggested Lichte, who is married, would have been court-martialed but that the statute of limitations of five years had lapsed. Lichte retired in 2010, but the Air Force began conducting an investigation in 2016 after it had received a complaint from the woman.
“You are hereby reprimanded!” James wrote, exclamation point hers, in the letter of Dec. 6, 2016. “Your conduct is disgraceful and, but for the statute of limitations bar to prosecution, would be more appropriately addressed through the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Lichte’s lawyer disputed the Air Force’s account of what took place and vowed to appeal its decision.
“My client did not commit a sexual assault and vehemently denies the unsworn allegations made against him regarding consensual events that happened over eight years ago,” Larry Youngner said in a statement. Lichte regrets his actions, is sorry for the pain he has caused his family and asked for privacy, Youngner said.
The acting Air Force secretary, Lisa Disbrow, said in a statement Wednesday about Lichte that all airmen, regardless of rank, would be judged equally.
“The Air Force takes all allegations of inappropriate conduct very seriously,” Disbrow said. “We expect our leaders to uphold the highest standards of behavior. These standards and rules underpin good order and discipline. Airmen at every level are held accountable.”
The demotion to major general occurred because that is the last rank at which Lichte served satisfactorily. The inappropriate sex happened when he was a three- and four-star officer.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis withdrew the certification of satisfactory service from Lichte on Jan. 30 and returned the case to the Air Force to determine the highest rank in which Lichte served satisfactorily.
Growing roster of disgrace
Lichte joins a roster of disgraced generals and admirals in the last year that includes Maj. Gen. David Haight, the “swinging general” whose serial promiscuity saw him get stripped of three ranks and cashiered from the Army. The Army also fired National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael Bobeck, a staff member for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for carrying on an extramarital affair And the Pentagon inspector general found that Army Lt. Gen. Ron Lewis, the top military aide to then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, put strip-club tabs on his government credit card, got drunk and had “improper interactions with females.”
Lichte, a pilot with more than 5,000 hours experience flying a variety of military aircraft, ascended to the Air Force’s highest ranks. He led Air Mobility Command, the Air Force’s vast fleet of cargo, refueling and medical evacuation warplanes.
The heavily redacted 50-page report by the inspector general into Lichte’s case shows that he and the woman, now a colonel, had sharply differing views of their relationship. Lichte maintained that he believed their three sexual encounters, two in 2007 and one in 2009, were consensual; she felt coerced, although she did not protest or struggle with him physically.
Lichte said “he was surprised because it took two to tango and he thought for sure VICTIM (was) interested in (him), just as he was interested in her, And of course, on most of these occasions it happened when alcohol was involved,” according to the report.
Investigators also interviewed a number of Lichte’s subordinates and colleagues. None of them reported untoward behavior from him, the report shows. Instead, they told investigators, he drank moderately in social settings and joked about the New York Yankees.
None of that mitigated James’ opinion. She excoriated Lichte, lashing out at him for staining the reputation of the Air Force.
“To have engaged in an unprofessional relationship, much less sexual acts, with a direct subordinate is intolerable and a severe breach of this special trust,” James wrote. “Your engagement in this misconduct both dishonored and disgraced you as a senior Air Force officer and leader and seriously compromised your standing as an officer. Your unbecoming conduct not only tarnishes your lengthy Air Force career, it brings disrepute on the Air Force.”
The punishment is likely the harshest the Air Force can dole out, said Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel and its former top prosecutor. Junior officers and enlisted troops often face harsher penalties than generals and admirals, he said.
“The only question is, ‘How much rank do you take?’ ” said Christensen, who is president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military. “Under these circumstances, this is probably the appropriate response. They have a problem when it comes to holding general officers accountable. They’ve never court-martialed a general officer.”