PORTLAND, Maine — Controversial statements about how the military handles sexual assault claims by a woman nominated for the second highest civilian position in the Navy have caused a key U.S. Senate member to question whether she should get the job.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, who have played key roles in trying to enact legislation to address sexual assault in the military, weren’t ready to oppose Jo Ann Rooney’s nomination as undersecretary of the Navy, but they did express concern Friday about her position on sexual assault in the military.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, the Maine Democrat who sponsored the Ruth Moore Act, legislation that would strengthen protections for sexual assault victims within the U.S. military, said Friday that Rooney’s statements raise new questions about the Navy’s commitment to a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual assault. She also said Rooney’s attempt to clarify her initial remarks on the topic failed to ease her concerns that the military is doing enough to change a culture that has sometimes denied justice to service men and women victimized by sexual abusers.
Also on Friday, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said she will meet with Rooney later this month, as she has with other nominees, to ask more questions.
In a letter Wednesday to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Committee on Armed Services, Rooney attempted to clarify remarks made ahead of her nomination about the impact of requiring a judge advocate, outside the chain of command, to determine whether allegations of sexual assault should be prosecuted.
According to the letter, which Pingree provided to the Bangor Daily News, Rooney said in her original statement that such a change would result in “decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline. I believe this will result in fewer prosecutions and therefore defeat the very problem that I understand [the change] seeks to address.”
On Wednesday, Rooney wrote that her response “did not mean to suggest that commanders do not consider evidence,” but instead “the view that commanders must evaluate more than the evidence” — including, she said, “the offense’s effect on morale, health, safety, welfare and discipline.”
The remarks prompted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to express “serious concerns” about Rooney’s nomination, Politico reported Friday. Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin told Politico Gillibrand asked that a committee vote on Rooney’s nomination wait until the nominee offers answers to additional questions.
Pingree told the BDN on Friday that she shares Gillibrand’s concerns, and added that “it is appropriate for Congress to push” to get those additional answers.
“I think that some of the answers that were in this letter raise some serious questions, particularly in this time when I think there’s been such a huge emphasis by members of Congress to say to the Navy, ‘We want you to have a zero tolerance policy. These are crimes. You can’t train them out of the Navy. We want you to take a stand,” Pingree said.
Collins, who is the lead co-sponsor of two bills, including Gillibrand’s, to address sexual assault in the military, said in an email to the Bangor Daily News Friday, “I raised concerns about sexual assault in the military at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing nearly a decade ago, and I am currently involved in a bipartisan effort to address this critical issue. Unfortunately, today, denial that this is a crisis remains widespread, and a zero tolerance for sexual assault and harassment has yet to become a culture of zero tolerance.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, was unavailable for comment Friday, spokeswoman Crystal Canney said.
Pingree, like Gillibrand, introduced legislation in Congress that would change the way sexual assaults in the military are prosecuted.
The Ruth Moore Act, already passed unanimously by the House, was inspired by a Maine woman who as an 18-year-old servicewoman was raped twice by her supervisor.
The legislation aims to reduce the standard of proof for victims of military sexual assault so that they can more easily obtain benefits, similar to how the Veterans Administration 2½ years ago relaxed the burden of proof for combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“With the Ruth Moore Act and other pieces of legislation sponsored and co-sponsored by all of the congressional delegation in Maine — we’ve been very unified in this — we want to see criminal activity prosecuted in the military,” Pingree said. “Anyone who thinks they can say, ‘Evidence isn’t important, and this isn’t a crime’ would set us back.”