WASHINGTON – The Marine Corps on Tuesday suspended a general who publicly ridiculed as “fake news” allegations of sexual harassment at his command and also joked about a chaplain recently fired for having sex in public, USA TODAY has learned.
Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein, director of Marine and Family Programs, made the remarks April 6 before an audience estimated at hundreds of civilian employees and Marines at their base in Quantico, Va., according to three people who attended the all-hands meeting last week. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they feared retaliation.
The allegations that Stein disparaged, first reported by USA TODAY in February, involved two civilian employees who said a Marine officer had made several sexual overtures to them. The allegations initially were deemed unfounded, but the Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, ordered a new investigation of the claims in March.
The Marine Corps confirmed that Stein had been suspended by Neller after an anonymous tip about his comments at the National Museum of the Marine Corps was phoned into the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
"We expect every Marine, uniformed and civilian — and particularly those in leadership positions — to take allegations of misconduct seriously and to promote positive command climates," said Lt. Col. Chris Devine, a Marine spokesman. "As a Corps we are committed to fully investigating and holding ourselves accountable when those allegations are shown to be true. Leaders have a responsibility to ensure that their Marines and civilian employees believe they will be taken seriously if they come forward with allegations of misconduct of any kind."
The office Stein commands handles sexual assault prevention and response for the Marine Corps.
Stein referred several times to the articles as “fake news,” a phrase President Trump regularly uses to deride critical stories, and used crass language to describe the charges made by the women, according to the people at the meeting. Many in the crowd were dumbfounded by his remarks.
Rep. Jackie Speier, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, said Stein had forced the Marines to fire him.
“If these allegations are true, Gen. Stein has no business serving in the Marine Corps,” Speier said. “Leaders must be held to the highest standard if the Corps expects the rank and file to live up to its core values of honor, courage, and commitment.”
Stein’s comments outraged Scott Jensen, a retired Marine colonel and chief executive officer of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military.
“He made it clear that those who are vulnerable will not be taken seriously and victims have no recourse other than to remain silent,” Jensen said. “And if you do dare to speak up, you will be publicly vilified by the most senior of leaders.”
Stein’s comment on fired Navy Chaplain Loften Thornton was inexplicable in any setting, Jensen said. Thornton, who worked for the Marines, was relieved of command in March for loss of confidence. His firing, USA TODAY reported last week, stemmed from a videotaped sexual encounter he had with a woman outside the Crown & Anchor pub not far from his base in New Orleans.
“The comment relating himself to the chaplain is reprehensible,” Jensen said. “Something no one expects of a general officer in any forum let alone a public forum in front of those he leads. Nothing but contempt and lack of respect for every person in the audience — particularly those women in the audience.”
Stein became director of Marine and Family Programs in November 2016. The allegations of sexual harassment by two women civilian employees date to 2013, and investigations did not substantiate their charges. However, Neller ordered new investigations after USA TODAY reported that the women felt the allegations had been handled inappropriately. They say a Marine officer, while clothed, had showed them several times that he was sexually aroused; he has denied the allegations.
Stein is a decorated aviator has flown more than 100 combat missions.
He will remain on administrative leave until the Marines complete their investigation of his remarks, Devine said.