WASHINGTON — The Air Force general nominated to be the nation's number two military officer strongly denied allegations of sexual misconduct Tuesday, telling a Senate committee that he was falsely accused and did nothing wrong.
"Nothing happened, ever," Air Force Gen. John Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee just moments after introducing his wife of 32 years, while his accuser sat further back in the hearing room. He said the allegations were shown to be false after a "fair and extensive investigation."
His denial comes after several months delay in the nomination process as senators investigated the charges made by Hyten's former aide, Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser.
The Army colonel says Hyten, who has been nominated to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances in 2017.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations reviewed the matter and found insufficient evidence to charge Hyten or recommend any administrative punishment.
The opening hour of the hearing was dominated by the issue, and included strong statements of support for Hyten from former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Az., a former fighter pilot who has publicly described her own sexual assault.
McSally said she has "full confidence" in Hyten and believes he is innocent.
"This wasn't just a jump ball. Not a he said, she said," McSally said. "Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn't happen in this case."
She added that she prays that "the accuser gets the help she needs and finds the peace she is searching for. But it cannot be by destroying General Hyten with false allegations."
Spletstoser told The Associated Press that Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017 while she was one of his top aides. She said she repeatedly pushed him away and told him to stop, and that he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.
She said she didn't report the incidents at the time to avoid embarrassment, and out of fear of retaliation. She was also thinking about retiring, and believed Hyten was as well, so she concluded that he would not pose a risk to any other service members.
Spletstoser said she came forward earlier this year after Hyten's nomination, because she couldn't live with the idea that he might assault someone else if he was confirmed for the job.
The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault, but Spletstoser has allowed her name to be used. She is still in the military and has moved on to a different job.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the committee, said last week that he was hopeful of moving forward with a vote in the committee possibly before the Senate's August recess.
Air Force officials have said that investigators went through 10,000 pages of documents, conducted interviews with as many as 50 people and pursued every lead but did not uncover evidence to support Spletstoser's allegations. But they also said they found no evidence that she was lying.
Senators have consistently criticized the Defense Department over its long and, at times, unsuccessful campaign to decrease the instances of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment across the military. Lawmakers have also criticized the department's handling of assault cases and tried repeatedly to overhaul what some say is a broken system.
They continued that criticism Tuesday, asking Hyten what he will do to get after the problem of sexual assault in the military. He said the Pentagon and Congress must work together to solve the problem.
Late last week, more than two dozen former defense officials wrote to committee leaders urging them to fully consider Hyten's nomination and allow a vote on the Senate floor.
"We do not present any judgment on the investigation; we do, however, write on behalf of the exemplary officer that we have known and with whom we have worked," they said. "We believe that our nation would greatly benefit if Gen. John Hyten were to be confirmed as Vice Chairman."
The group sending the letter includes a number of former executives at the national laboratories that work on nuclear issues and projects.
Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.