Air Force general says he had a consensual affair with subordinate after being accused of sexual assault

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, commander of 19th Air Force, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, is briefed by U.S. Air Force Maj. Stephanie Chayrez, flight commander, human performance, 33rd Fighter Wing, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, Nov. 30, 2022. Stewart toured the 33rd FW to learn about the wing’s mission and commemorate exceptional Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Christian Corley)

Sig Christenson
San Antonio Express-News
(TNS)

Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, charged with raping a female subordinate, pleaded not guilty Thursday as prosecutors and defense lawyers argued over whether his text messages to the alleged victim should be admitted as evidence of “grooming behavior.”

Stewart, former commander of the San Antonio-based 19th Air Force, the service’s pilot training arm, is only the second general officer in Air Force history to face a court-martial.

He is accused of sexually assaulting the female officer at or near Altus AFB in southwestern Oklahoma last April. He’s charged with sexual assault, conduct unbecoming an officer, dereliction of duty and other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If convicted of all charges, he could be sentenced to up to 63 years in a military penitentiary. His trial is scheduled for June 17.

His defense team maintains that Stewart and the woman had a consensual affair. Military prosecutors assert that given Stewart’s rank, she had no choice but to submit.

Stewart wore a dress-blue uniform and an impassive expression during a military court hearing Thursday at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, where lawyers haggled over the admissibility of 352 pages of documents, including 18 pages of text messages between him and the alleged victim.

Stewart said nothing during the proceeding, held in a wood-paneled courtroom in Randolph’s ornate administration building, known as the Taj Mahal.

His civilian attorney, Sherry Bunn, spoke for him when it came time to enter a plea. Bunn told the judge, Col. Matthew Stoffel, that Stewart pleaded not guilty “to all charges and specifications.”

On her client’s behalf, Bunn also asked for a trial by jury rather than by a judge. The jury would be composed of officers of Stewart’s rank or higher.

In arguing that the text messages should be admitted as evidence, prosecutors said they showed Stewart using his power and position to seduce the woman.

“They’ll show evidence of his pursuit of her,” said Col. Naomi Dennis, the Air Force trial counsel.

‘Too much hurt’

Prosecutors maintain the female officer was worried about what would happen if she rejected Stewart’s advances. They cited an interview in which she told Air Force investigators: “I don’t know how to tell him no.”

Stewart’s lawyers said the woman did say no to Stewart at times and that she is a lieutenant colonel with combat experience who was capable of standing up for herself.

Prosecutors also argued that the text messages show Stewart knew his conduct was wrong and sought to manipulate the woman to help him cover it up.

They cited an exchange in which the subordinate, who by then was cooperating with Air Force investigators, asked Stewart whether she should tell anyone what happened.

“I’ve never kept anything from my husband,” she wrote.

“I think that’s all we can do,” Stewart replied. “Too much hurt otherwise.”

Prosecutors brought up a separate incident in which they said Stewart sent a female airman, identified only as “KB,” smartphone pictures of himself in a hot tub and drinking alcohol. They said he did not send similar images to male subordinates.

Bunn said nothing happened between Stewart and the airman.

“The government has just argued propensity evidence,” Bunn said. Propensity evidence refers to a prosecutor’s use of prior bad acts to try to prove a defendant guilty of a crime. Such evidence is generally excluded, unless it qualifies under certain exceptions in the Military Rules of Evidence.

‘Speaks volumes’

Stewart once flew fighter-bombers and high-altitude spy planes, held command positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and oversaw 32,000 employees as commander of the 19th Air Force. He was sacked as head of the 19th in May, a month after the alleged sexual assault.

The evidence against him was aired at an Article 32 hearing at Randolph in October. An Article 32 hearing is similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding, held to determine whether there is sufficient evidence of a crime to warrant a trial.

During that hearing, defense lawyers said the female officer joked with Stewart during their encounters and kissed and hugged him. Prosecutors, however, said the evidence showed that he forced his will on her and that comments she made before, during and after the encounter suggested she was uncomfortable.

Lt. Col. Pete Havern, special trial counsel for the Air Force, said during the Article 32 hearing that Stewart “should not have put himself in the position” of having sex with a subordinate. Havern said it “speaks volumes” that when investigators interviewed the woman, she referred to Stewart over and over as “boss.”

After reviewing the evidence, the hearing examiner, Col. Brian Thompson, recommended against a court-martial, saying the case was so weak that prosecutors would never obtain a conviction.

“At no point did (the alleged victim) express, through words or conduct, that she was not freely agreeing/consenting to engage in the sexual acts with accused,” Thompson wrote in his Oct. 29 report.

The woman “engaged in conversation with (the) accused during breaks between the sexual acts, laughing at him, teasing him, and complimenting him, talking about how they would keep the sexual encounter from their spouses, letting him know she had an IUD,” Thompson wrote.

“I will not hedge; even taking the evidence presented in the light most favorable to the prosecution, no rational trier of fact could find the elements of sexual assault here beyond a reasonable doubt,” Thompson said in his report.

However, Lt. Gen. Brian S. Robinson, head of the Randolph-based Air Education and Training Command and Stewart’s commanding officer, overruled the hearing officer and ordered Stewart to stand trial on all the charges.

Stewart’s lawyers have petitioned Robinson to allow him to retire rather than be court-martialed. In that event, Stewart would go before a grade determination board to set his final rank. If he was busted down in rank, he could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement benefits compared with what he would have collected as a retired two-star general.

Robinson will make a recommendation on Stewart’s petition to retire to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III, who will have the final say.

In addition to the charges related to the alleged sexual assault, Stewart is accused of flying an aircraft within 12 hours of consuming alcohol, a “throttle-to-bottle” violation. It allegedly happened at Altus on April 14, around the same time as the alleged assault.

The only other Air Force general ever to be court-martialed is Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. He was convicted of engaging in abusive sexual conduct against his sister-in-law at a backyard party in 2018. He was reduced to the rank of colonel. He retired last June.

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