Petitioners who came to Washington demanding that lawmakers investigate sexual abuse at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas maintain Capitol Hill staff threatened to shut them out if the plaintiffs did not stop criticizing House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) to the press.
The exchange in question took place in McKeon’s Rayburn office Aug. 2, the date the Protect Our Defenders group delivered a glut of online petitions (10,000-13,000) calling for a Congressional hearing into sexual assault and misconduct at the San Antonio military compound.
While all sides agree that House Armed Services Committee senior adviser Jaime Cheshire made a point of highlighting pre-existing media coverage about the issue, they part company on the examples cited and the thrust of her message.
"While I did hand out an op-ed by Nancy Parrish that ran in the Huffington Post and mischaracterized the committee's position on the Lackland scandal, it was to emphasize that the relationship between POD and the committee needed to be reset,” Cheshire recalled. Parrish is the president of Protect Our Defenders.
Paula Coughlin, who is now known as Paula Puopolo and was the whistleblower in the Navy's Tailhook scandal — “I’ve been down this road before,” she said — remembers things very differently, down to the publication involved.
According to Coughlin, Cheshire waved around a copy of a July 25 article by KHTS reporter Mark Archuleta in which Coughlin and POD encourage McKeon to end the “failure of leadership” on military sexual assault.
“It was pretty clear her intention was to show us they were aware I had done an interview with his hometown newspaper and they wanted that to cease and desist,” Coughlin told HOH, adding, “It was, ‘Stop doing that or we won’t help you.’”
Archuleta documented a similar claim in an interview he did with Coughlin after the D.C. trip, excerpted here from notes shared by Archuleta:
"Paula Coughlin: Their office also told me that if reach out to you guys. If I do interviews with you, his hometown media, that all communication would be severed. So, I’m pretty sure when you run this. I am not getting a ticket to the hearings.
Mark Archuleta: Did they tell you that in person?
MA: Where were you?
PC: In his office.
MA: And who told you that?
PC: Jaime. She said, 'That’s off limits and you can’t do that. Because we will' … how did she say this … 'sever ties or we will discontinue all of this communication.'"
Protect Our Defenders spokesman Brian Purchia also remembers being shown the KHTS story. He said his organization had no intention of altering its course and the relationship has not changed with the committee.
“During the meeting, Jaime showed us a recent article by Mark Archuleta … then told us that if we continued to talk with his local media our conversations with the HASC were over. After this meeting, we did not stop talking to local media, and we continue to work with HASC staff,” Purchia said.
Cheshire had believed all the participating parties were in sync.
“Today the relationship between POD and the committee is a constructive one, and we are working together to implement serious reforms,” she said. “It is sad that some who were in the room would rather take political potshots than work together on behalf of victims of sexual assault."
According to a McKeon aide, the Armed Services Committee expects to proceed with recently agreed upon hearing(s) into improprieties at Lackland once the “prosecutions of the offenders are complete."
According to Reuters, five drill sergeants at Lackland have been convicted or have pleaded guilty to charges ranging from sexual misconduct to sexual assault, a sixth is awaiting court martial and another 13 are under investigation. In addition, the Air Force has set up a hotline and reached out to recruits going back a decade to see if any more victims come forward or misconduct is alleged.
Meanwhile, Archuleta and KHTS news director Carol Rock were fired this week amid reported clashes with KHTS management over their reporting on McKeon.