Kirsten Gillibrand Pleads for Military to Review Sexual Abuse, Domestic Violence Allegation: 'We Have Grave Concerns' for Their Safety

A U.S. Air Force general upheld a colonel's decision to dismiss a sexual abuse case against an active-duty colonel despite pleas from members of Congress to vet the allegations fully. Colonel Eric Holt is accused of domestic violence and child sexual abuse.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and two Massachusetts representatives raised concerns about the quality of the investigation into the alleged abuse and the safety of the family, according to a letter obtained by Newsweek, which is withholding the details to protect the victims.

"We are concerned that the safety of the children in this case could be seriously undermined because of reported actions taken by members of the command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations, which suggest that the Air Force's own procedures and policies were not followed," Gillibrand and Representatives Joseph P. Kennedy and Niki Tsongas wrote in a letter dated June 12 to the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff.

Gillibrand has long been a staunch advocate for military justice reform, especially concerning cases involving sexual assault. Last month, she introduced the Military Family PROTECT Act aimed at reducing child abuse on military installations. She also championed the Military Justice Improvement Act, designed to reform how cases are reviewed and sent to court marital, including curtailing the power convening authorities wield in certain cases. Both bills are still in committee.

The letter claims that qualified military prosecutors and civilian experts in the Air Force that potentially could have provided valuable input were barred from reviewing the case.

"If the facts as reported to us are true, we have grave concerns about the safety of this military family," the letter said. "We urge you to ensure that a fair, impartial, and professional review of this case takes place immediately."

Major General James A. Jacobson, who is the commander of Air Force troops in Washington, D.C., agreed with Air Force Colonel E. John Teichert, who is the commander of the 11th Wing, to not move the case forward to an Article 32 hearing, the civilian equivalent of a preliminary trial, against Holt this past Friday. Newsweek attempted to reach Holt for comment, but no reply was returned.

Holt is an active-duty officer, a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist and West Point graduate, who served tours in the Philippines and Afghanistan. He suffered multiple severe injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, after his Humvee hit an anti-tank mine that was rigged to two 155 millimeter artillery shells in 2009 when he was attached to a U.S. Marine special operations team, according to court documents.

He faced charges under Article 120 (rape, sexual assault, and other sexual misconduct) and Article 128 (assault) under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Major Jophiel Philips, a U.S. Air Force judge advocate and a Bronze Star recipient, told Newsweek on Wednesday that OSI agents left out relevant evidence for review and that even with what was included he is perplexed by Jacobson's decision not to go forward to an Article 32 hearing. Philips served as the special victims counsel for Holt's ex-wife. In 2013, the U.S. Air Force, in conjunction with other services, created the special victims counsel to help stem sexual assault in the military and to give a voice to victims within the military justice system.

Due to the sexual assault component of the case, a dual review was required. Teichert, the special court martial convening authority, could have recommended that the case go before an Article 32 hearing, but decided to scrap the case. Jacobson, a two-star general, could have overturned Teichert's decision by bringing the case up to his level as the general court martial convening authority for after review; however, he agreed with Teichert's decision.

Unlike civilian courts where a judge or grand jury determines if there's enough evidence to warrant a trial, the military takes a slightly different approach as a military commander or "convening authority" determines whether a case goes before a preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32 hearing, which would determine if there's enough evidence to go to court martial.

Convening authorities generally do not have backgrounds in military law, but instead, receive guidance from a staff judge advocate. Philips said that the case against Holt could be resurrected, but as of now "it's dead in the water."

Jacobson's office did not return Newsweek 's request for comment.

The evidence the court reviews is a part of a report of investigation or ROI. The report is prepared by special agents with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

"I've been in the JAG [Judge Advocate General] Corps for 6-years, and I've never seen a case like this," Philips said. "It's outrageous, there's so much evidence in this case, I have no idea why it would not move onto an Article 32 hearing, we're not even asking for a court martial, we're just asking that all of the evidence be reviewed."

In April, a Pentagon report showed that sexual assault reports in the military surged by 10 percent in 2017 from the previous year. The total number of sex offenses reported was 6,769—4,193 involving female service members and 1,084 involving male service members. The others were made up of civilian personnel or victims who were not in the military.