CHANGING OF THE GUARD

EMBATTLED ADJUTANT GENERAL IS ON THE WAY OUT, ROMER SAYS.

Sometimes old soldiers don't die--they just become political liabilities and get shuffled out a side door. And thus ends the career of Major General John France of the Colorado National Guard.

France has been under scrutiny since last year, when he was named in a civil suit accusing him of misusing state funds and resources, turning his back on instances of sexual and racial harassment and retaliating against whistleblowers ("Base Behavior," April 20). No trial date has been set. Two of the six plaintiffs who are suing France have complained that since filing suit they have been subjected to unwarranted criminal investigations.

The governor is up for re-election this fall, and members of his own party--including Senate minority leader Mike Feeley--were demanding an answer from France. And so last week, early on the morning of the gubernatorial primary, says state senator Joan Johnson, Governor Roy Romer told a select few legislators that he would not be reappointing France as adjutant general. France's latest appointment expired last month. He will be allowed to hang on to his seat until February 1 at the latest, and then he's out the door, Romer promised.

Romer spokeswoman Cindy Parmenter calls the decision a "mutual agreement" between the governor and the general. "I believe that France has been in the job since 1979," she says, "and they both felt that was long enough, and that it was time for a change."

Past time for a change, says Johnson, who's been pressing the issue for months. "I would have preferred to have him gone tomorrow," she says. "But I'm pleased with the decision. We need new leadership, fresh leadership in military affairs. And it's not just the allegations in the lawsuit. It's the whole department's performance."

France, who did not return repeated phone calls from Westword, was appointed to the post by Governor Dick Lamm and oversees more than 5,000 employees in the Army and Air Guards and an annual budget over $5 million. His $100,000 salary makes him the governor's highest-paid cabinet member.

According to last year's suit, France allowed the Colorado Air National Guard to become a playground for good ol' boys where passenger jets were used as "party barges" to serve and entertain politicians, upper-echelon military personnel and even the rank and file. Favored personnel allegedly were treated to junkets to the Cayman Islands, Rio de Janeiro, Walt Disney World and the World's Fair in Vancouver, Canada.

Captain Alison Ruttenberg, the lead plaintiff in the suit, was a staff attorney at Buckley Air National Guard Base when other guard members approached her for legal advice about their complaints, which they said had been swept under the rug. She helped a handful of guardsmen--including Captain Jesus Quinonez, Captain Thomas Updyke, Master Sergeant Kenneth Schaiterer and Master Sergeant Phillip Pohanic--file "complaints of wrongs," which are designed to allow soldiers to protest alleged misconduct by their superior officers.

Those complaints were turned over to commander-in-chief Romer, who lobbed them back to France. But France had been part of the long-standing problem, Ruttenberg says, and when the papers reached him, the problems began in earnest: Ruttenberg was investigated for breaking the chain of command (she was later cleared of wrongdoing); Pohanic was fired for smoking on an airplane; and Technical Sergeant Terri Bruch, who signed an affidavit in support of Pohanic, was told that she would not be allowed to re-enlist.

The retaliation allegedly continued even after Ruttenberg, Pohanic, Quinonez, Updyke, Schaiterer and Bruch filed suit in September against Romer, France and a host of others. First, Ruttenberg was removed from her job as a judge advocate. She was slated to be promoted to major in May, but France removed her from the promotion list, accusing her of committing "ethical violations" and showing disrespect to superior officers. And Pohanic's personal finances were probed by military investigators. (After he complained that the probe violated federal law, the investigators backed off.)

Ruttenberg also is reportedly under scrutiny. Ruttenberg, Bruch and their attorney, Denis Mark, say the Office of Special Investigations has accused Ruttenberg of improperly notarizing affidavits relating to the 1993 lawsuit. Investigators charge that Bruch did not sign her name to certain affidavits, but that Ruttenberg notarized the affidavits and signatures, anyway. Bruch and Ruttenberg deny the charges.

The status of that investigation is unknown, however. Even though Ruttenberg provided the Guard with a signed release to allow disclosure of the existence of the criminal investigation, the Guard refused to release the information. In a terse statement faxed to Westword late last week, Public Information Officer Major Tom Schultz wrote, "This office can neither confirm or deny allegations of an investigation." That decision was made, he wrote, after "waiting for consensus on the part of counsel for the defendants." In other words, he asked the permission of attorneys for Romer and France. Schultz declined to explain why those attorneys should have any say about revealing the existence of a criminal investigation.

If France's critics have their way, he might have a little explaining of his own to do. Ruttenberg has complained to the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., that the Colorado National Guard improperly used public funds to lobby politicians--ferrying them to the Guard headquarters in Englewood via Guard helicopters on June 30, "Legislative Day."

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