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Colorado lawmakers back inquiry into Air Force Academy athletics

August 4, 2014 Updated: January 9, 2015 at 6:18 pm
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photo - Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson took over the reigns of the Air Force Academy during a Change of Command Ceremony on Monday, August 12, 2013. The outgoing Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould is retiring after 37 years in the Air Force. Johnson is the first female to be Superintendent at the Air Force Academy. Lt. Gen. Johnson is addressing the media after the ceremony. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson took over the reigns of the Air Force Academy during a Change of Command Ceremony on Monday, August 12, 2013. The outgoing Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould is retiring after 37 years in the Air Force. Johnson is the first female to be Superintendent at the Air Force Academy. Lt. Gen. Johnson is addressing the media after the ceremony. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson received the support Monday of the Pentagon and two Colorado lawmakers in her investigation into whether the school's athletic department is in lockstep with the school's values.

The comments from U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn came after a  Gazette investigation    Sunday into the school's athletic program and cadet misconduct including sexual assault and drug use. Johnson, who became the top officer of the academy a year ago, told The Gazette that she has called for an Inspector General's investigation of the athletic department.

The Gazette found that for three years starting in 2010, some cadets, including a core group of football players, took part in acts including drug use, binge drinking, sexual assault and cheating. The newspaper's investigation described a dragnet with 32 cadet suspects that commenced in the days after a Dec. 2, 2011, party where informants told investigators that women at the party got drinks from a bottle laced with the date-rape drug Rohypnol, identified for women by their blue caps.

Two football players and a recruited athlete were later court-martialed for sexual assault.

Insiders cited a drop in recruiting standards, a drive to win games and attract big-money boosters and lax management as possible causes for the problems in the athletic program.

In a statement responding to the allegations, Johnson said a new era has begun.

"In part, recognition of this prior misconduct has caused us to refocus on our culture and climate," Johnson said. "Since my arrival a year ago, we've taken a number of actions across the campus with the objective to even more deeply ingrain a culture consistent with our core values."

The story drew national media attention, with The New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post citing The Gazette's story. It was also fodder for military blogs and sports radio shows around the country.

Udall, Lamborn and Lamborn's Democratic rival, former academy vice-superintendent Irv Halter, all said Johnson is doing the right thing by investigating the athletic department.

"These are shocking and troubling reports. I appreciate the action steps being taken by Lieutenant General Johnson to set things right," Lamborn said in a Monday statement. "This sort of behavior must be removed root and branch, it has no place in an institution training our next generation of military leaders."

Udall voiced similar sentiments.

"Sexual assault and the use of date-rape drugs are serious crimes, and those who would tolerate or fail to report such disgusting behavior have no place in our armed forces," Udall said. "The Gazette deserves credit for bringing these allegations to light, and Lt. Gen. Johnson has my full support as she works to ensure the trust our nation places in the academy is well-founded."

Halter, who served at the academy in 2005-06, said during his time at the school, he saw no indications of cultural concerns in the athletic department, which he said was well-led by athletic director Hans Mueh.

"Hans Mueh is as pure as the driven snow on issues of character," Halter said.

Still, Halter said, if elected he would demand a hard look at the academy's system to ensure accountability. The Pentagon on Monday backed academy efforts to address issues raised in The Gazette investigation, including Johnson's order for a review of the athletic department.

"There is a persistent leadership focus and commitment to ensuring that behavior inconsistent with Air Force core values is rooted out and appropriate action is taken," Air Force headquarters spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns wrote. "Where behavior is incongruent with core values, corrective action is taken. Where lapses in judgment occur, the Air Force has a proven track record of holding individuals accountable."

Also on Monday, the group Protect our Defenders in Washington, D.C., said the academy hasn't addressed concerns over a climate that its president claims makes the school a "target-rich environment for sexual predators."

The group's president, Nancy Parrish, sent a letter to the school's Board of Visitors on April 4 airing the claims of an academy worker that cadets who report sexual assaults are subject to harassment and ostracism. That makes victims reluctant to seek justice, Parrish wrote.

Defenders' policy chief Miranda Petersen said issues occur because cadets who bring criminal allegations are quickly identified within the academy's insular community.

"If they all know you made an allegation against a popular football player, there's an environment that turns on the victim," Petersen said.

Academy spokesman Lt. Col. Brus Vidal said Monday that while leaders haven't replied to Protect our Defenders, they have been examining the allegations the group has raised since leaders were notified by the Board of Visitors in late June.

"The Protect our Defenders assertions were very serious and demanded a serious inquiry and response - a matter not easily addressed in less than a few weeks' time," Vidal said.

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