Feds Settle Claim Against Former Vice Chairman

The taxpayers shelled out nearly $1 million for . . . something.

AP (“Army colonel gets $975,000 in sex assault case against former Joint Chiefs vice chairman“):

A retired Army colonel has reached a court settlement of nearly $1 million in a sexual assault lawsuit against Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The settlement with the U.S. government ends more than four years of investigations, reviews and congressional digging into the matter, which delayed — but ultimately did not defeat — Hyten’s nomination for vice chairman in 2019. He served two years and did not seek a second term.

Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, who served as Hyten’s aide in 2017, filed the lawsuit, and in the settlement reached in U.S. District Court in California on Wednesday, the federal government will pay her $975,000.

“It is my sincere hope that the successful outcome in my case will embolden other survivors of military sexual violence to come forward — no matter how high ranking the perpetrator,” she said in a statement Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 2019, Spletstoser said Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017 while she was one of his top aides. She said she repeatedly pushed him away and told him to stop, and that he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.

Hyten vigorously denied her allegations during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in July 2019, with his wife seated behind him and Spletstoser looking on from a short distance away. An internal Air Force investigation determined there was insufficient evidence to charge him or recommend discipline. And a senior Air Force official said at the time that investigators also found no evidence Spletstoser was lying. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

It is not uncommon for the U.S. government to pay out large sums of money to settle lawsuits, but a sexual assault case against such a high ranking military officer is far more rare.

The number of reported sexual assaults in the military has increased nearly every year since 2006. And while the services have made inroads in making it easier and safer for service members to come forward, it still remains a highly unreported crime.

Hyten’s nomination was delayed for months while senators pored over thousands of pages of documents and interviewed the general and Spletstoser. The eventual Senate vote of 75-22 to confirm him reflected a bit more opposition than most military nominations, which usually get near-unanimous support.

The report raised more questions than it answered so Iooked for more. The NYT report (“U.S. to Pay $975,000 to Resolve Sexual Assault Claims Against Air Force General“) was more thorough but still not all that helpful. It’s more graphic about the allegations:

In her lawsuit, Colonel Spletstoser said that on one occasion in 2017, General Hyten had grabbed her hand and put it on his crotch so that she could feel his erect penis. On another occasion, she said, he had pulled her to him and kissed her on the lips while pressing himself against her, then ejaculated, getting semen on his sweatpants and on her yoga pants.

But it also reinforces Hyten’s denial and the lack of evidence against him:

Speaking at General Hyten’s confirmation hearing in July 2019, Heather A. Wilson, a former Air Force secretary, said she had directed a thorough investigation into the accusations and had concluded that the general “was falsely accused.” She praised General Hyten’s credibility and experience.

In September 2019, the Senate voted, 75 to 22, to confirm General Hyten’s nomination. Colonel Spletstoser retired the following month after a 30-year career in the Army. General Hyten retired in 2021 after 40 years in the military.

It’s noteworthy that these are matters of course: it is mandatory (although waiverable) to retire at the 30-year mark for colonels not selected for brigadier general and Hyten completed his two-year term as Vice Chief (since extended to four years).

Both parties agreed this week to the $975,000 settlement to resolve the lawsuit that Colonel Spletstoser had filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, court documents show.

The settlement stipulates that it is “in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agencies, officers, employees, agents, and servants.”

I have no personal knowledge of Spletstoser but she was clearly an outstanding officer, selected as a White House Fellow, for battalion command, and for prestigious senior billets. I can’t imagine why she would level such scandalous charges against a senior leader if they didn’t happen.

At the same time, Hyten obviously also had a brilliant career. He denies the allegations and was cleared of them in a thorough investigation. The Secretary of the Air Force* concluded not simply that there was no evidence—which is often, if not usually, the case in these situations—but that “he was falsely accused.”

So I still don’t understand on what basis she had a claim against the federal government here, let alone why they agreed to pay her a hefty settlement. (Whether coincidental or otherwise, it’s almost exactly six years of base pay for a 30-year colonel.) Was there additional evidence not uncovered in the original investigation? Or was this simply a case of it being cheaper to pay her off than litigate multiple suits?

It’s noteworthy that the settlement is clear that, “This stipulation for compromise settlement is not, is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agencies, officers, employees, agents, and servants, and it is specifically denied that they are liable to the Plaintiff.” And that Spletstoser’s attorney fees, which I imagine to be considerable, are to be paid from the settlement.


*Yes, Wilson was a Trump appointee but she was hand-picked by Jim Mattis and eminently qualified for the job. For whatever reason, the senior-most Defense Department posts were a rare area where Trump’s appointees were what one would have expected in a normal Republican presidency.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States

    This strikes me as boiler plate and, on a practical level, devoid of any meaning but that of the legal purpose it serves.

    This is a difficult case. AF Secretary Wilson publicly concluded the accusations were false, but another anonymous senior AF official says there was no evidence the accuser lied. If there is any way those two statements can be reconciled, the AF is keeping it secret. This leaves both the accused and the accuser with their reputations questioned. And the decision to pay her almost a million dollars but still not reveal the results of the investigation tarnishes the reputation of the AF as a whole. It can be interpreted in several ways, but I think the least likely is that there was credible evidence that she lied but they paid her off just to make her go away.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: But both parties agreed to that language, meaning the payout was more important than vindication. Then again, I don’t know how you’d go about proving that this did/didn’t happen. Alas, it’s more vindication for the Pence Rule: Hyden is going to be presumed guilty by a huge number of people. He’d have been better off not allowing himself to be alone with his female aide without witnesses.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: There seems to be more too it than that though. One official with knowledge of the investigation says the accusation was false. Another says there is no evidence she was lying. Those statements can’t be squared. By keeping the results of the investigation secret and keeping the case out of the courts, we will never know the truth. My suspicion (and only that) is that there is something that the military doesn’t want to come out, but I honestly don’t know what that is.

  4. Jax says:

    What, she didn’t keep the yoga pants?! If the blue dress taught us anything…..

    Why was he in sweat pants and her in yoga pants, in the first place?

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Jax: I presume they were working out?

  6. Andy says:

    Strange indeed.

    My guess is that both parties understood that the case would never be resolved, and this was a way out.

  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    It seems to me that if there was no evidence that she was lying, then saying that he was “falsely accused” amounts to slander. The SecAF should have said that the evidence was “inconclusive” or something. I can easily imagine paying just under a million bucks to settle a defamation lawsuit.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I’m surprised that she used that language as well—although there doesn’t appear to be a defamation suit filed.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Jay L Gischer: If I had to guess, you hit the nail on the head. The settlement might have come as much from Wilson’s public comment as much as from Hyten’s alleged behavior. Which begs the question: If that is true, why did she go so far out on a limb to make such a statement?

  10. Jax says:

    @James Joyner: I was unaware that aides would work out with their boss. Is that normal, in the military?

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Jax: Absolutely, especially if they’re traveling. They’ll grab a quick workout at 0500 in the hotel/base gym before the day starts. The military (although, admittedly, less so the Air Force) has a huge PT culture.