Jeffrey Sinclair Busted From Brigadier General to Lieutenant Colonel [UPDATED]

The Army is sending a strong message on sexual assault. It picked the wrong poster boy.


Jeffrey Sinclair has been reduced two ranks, from brigadier general to lieutenant colonel, after an embarrassing sex scandal.

WRAL (“Army busts Sinclair down two ranks after sex misconduct case“):

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who was cleared of sexually assaulting a junior officer, was demoted to lieutenant colonel before he was allowed to retire, the Army said Friday.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh said Sinclair retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Officials said it was the first time the Army has reduced a retiring general officer by two ranks in a decade.

“While retirement benefits are mandated by federal law, there is a requirement that an individual must have served satisfactorily in rank before receiving those benefits,” McHugh said in a statement. “Sinclair displayed a pattern of inappropriate, and at times illegal, behavior both while serving as a brigadier general and a colonel. I therefore decided there was sufficient evidence and cause to deny him those benefits.”

Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing a captain under his command to perform oral sex, but the Army’s case against him fell apart over questions about her credibility and whether military officials improperly pursued the court-martial to send a message about cracking down on sexual misconduct in the ranks.

He ended his court-martial in March by pleading guilty to mistreating the captain during a three-year affair and having improper relationships with two other women. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military, as well as misuse of the government credit card and other conduct unbecoming an officer.

The military judge in the case reprimanded Sinclair and ordered him to forfeit $20,000 in pay.

McHugh said that that he was prevented by federal law from taking further action and did what was “legally sustainable.”

We’ve had two four-star generals in recent memory cashiered for far more egregious conduct yet punished less severely. Stanley McChrystal was allowed to retire as a four-star despite gross contempt toward  to the commander-in-chief.  Kip Ward was reduced one rank, to lieutenant general, after conviction for gross corruption. Yet Sinclair, who had the most serious charges against him dismissed, is being busted all the way down to lieutenant colonel?

In essence, McHugh is declaring that, the Army’s failure to convict be damned, Sinclair was a sexual predator at a time when the Defense Department is, rightly, cracking down on what is perceived as a lax attitude toward sexual assault. That Sinclair was a rising star and was engaged in a highly questionable, adulterous relationship with an officer much junior to him certainly makes him an excellent candidate for “sending a message” that the Army is not going to tolerate this sort of behavior. But the fact remains: Sinclair was not convicted.

Here’s the NYT from March:

The senior Army officer prosecuted in the military’s most closely watched sexual assault case, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, has agreed to plead guilty to sharply reduced charges, including that he disobeyed a commander’s order, misused his government charge card and mistreated his former mistress, a captain.

In exchange for those pleas, prosecutors will dismiss far more serious charges against General Sinclair, including that he twice forced the captain into oral sex and threatened to kill her and her family.


The deal caps the surprisingly rapid and, for the military, embarrassing collapse of what once seemed a powerful case — an unraveling that began after Army prosecutors concluded that their chief witness, the captain, who had been the general’s lover for three years, may have lied under oath at a pretrial hearing in January.


The deal could still set up a showdown. Defense lawyers said military prosecutors might call the captain — as well as her parents, who are from Nebraska — as witnesses at a sentencing hearing this week in an effort to persuade the judge to impose tougher punishment on General Sinclair.

But that would allow the general’s defense team, led by a former federal prosecutor, to cross-examine the 34-year-old woman, a military intelligence officer, with what they assert are numerous instances of contradictions or deceptions discovered during a year of trial preparation. The woman already testified earlier this month about what she said were threats from General Sinclair and forced oral sex, but she was not cross-examined because the court-martial was postponed.


Though his former lover’s problematic testimony shook the prosecution team, and led the chief military prosecutor to quit the case after his bosses rejected his advice to drop charges that relied solely on her testimony, Army officials say they do not question her account of the general’s forcing her to perform oral sex.

But the prosecution suffered another major setback last week when the military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, ruled that the senior Army commander overseeing the case may have been wrongly influenced by political considerations when he rejected the general’s earlier offer to resolve the charges by pleading guilty to lesser counts.

The judge’s ruling suggested that he thought military officials, under political pressure, may have stuck with the toughest charges against General Sinclair despite qualms in an effort to show new resolve against sexual misconduct.

The new guilty pleas General Sinclair is expected to enter on Monday are in addition to guilty pleas he entered earlier this month, which remain in force. Those charges include adultery, requesting explicit photographs from female Army officers, possessing pornography in a combat theater and seeking a date with a lieutenant.

Despite the outcome of the case, it’s rather clear that Sinclair is a sleazeball who abused his position. I share McHugh’s contempt for his conduct and would be happy to see Sinclair dishonorably discharged and stripped of his pension. But the fact remains that he was not convicted of these charges. For what he was actually convicted of doing, the sentencing is harsh and unprecedented. I don’t know what avenues for appeal are open to Sinclair but would expect him to prevail. Even though Sinclair is a scumbag, the punishment here is an abuse of power by the Secretary of the Army.

UPDATE:  Upon further investigation, I think I’m wrong here.  McHugh has released a statement that “Sinclair displayed a pattern of inappropriate and at times illegal behavior both while serving as a Brigadier General and a Colonel. I therefore decided there was sufficient evidence and cause to deny him those benefits.”

My friend and recently retired Marine lawyer Butch Bracknell tells me that this is indeed “the statutory and regulatory standard” and in fact not unprecedented. He cites the 2010 case of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Fiscus, the Air Force’s former top military lawyer, who was reduced to colonel “. after an investigation found him involved in several affairs and improper conduct with more than a dozen women.”

He points to Army Regulation 15-80,  ”Army Grade Determination Review Board and Grade Determinations,” dated July 2002, as the governing regulation. Looking through it I see this as applicable:

2-5. Unsatisfactory service
Service in the highest grade or an intermediate grade normally will be considered to have been unsatisfactory when:
a. The highest grade was a result of a terminal leave promotion (see the glossary for a definition of this term).
b. Reversion to a lower grade was—
(1) Expressly for prejudice or cause.
(2) Owing to misconduct.
(3) Caused by nonjudicial punishment pursuant to UCMJ, Art. 15.
(4) The result of the sentence of a court-martial.
c. There is sufficient unfavorable information to establish that the soldier’s service in the grade in question was
unsatisfactory. One specific act of misconduct may or may not form the basis for a determination that the overall
service in that grade was unsatisfactory, regardless of the period of time served in grade. However, service retirement
in lieu of or as the result of elimination action will not, by itself, preclude retirement in the highest grade.

I’m still not sure that Sinclair wasn’t singled out for unusually strong punishment because of the recent emphasis on sexual assault.  But McHugh was acting well within his authority and there is indeed—contrary to the press report that I was citing—recent precedent for this sort of punishment.

As for Ward, the same rationale applied: he committed his offenses as a four-star, so was retired at the three-star rank at which he had served satisfactorily.

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. We’ve had two four-star generals in recent memory cashiered for far more egregious conduct yet punished less severely. Stanley McChrystal was allowed to retire as a four-star despite gross contempt toward to the commander-in-chief.

    Calling Obama names behind his back is more egregious than allegedly raping your subordinates?

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: In America, we don’t punish people for allegations, but rather the things we convict them of in court. Sinclair was convicted of relatively minor crimes.

    And, yes, McChrystal committed a grave offense against the Constitution. That’s actually quite important.

  3. legion says:

    Even though Sinclair is a scumbag, the punishment here is an abuse of power by the Secretary of the Army.

    That’s one way to look at it… I prefer to see it as: the way those generals were allowed off the hook without reductions was an abuse of power by the Secretary. So much of officership, command, and rank is driven by (or at least, we’re told constantly that it’s driven by) the confidence your superiors and fellows have in you – in your character and your ability to lead and perform. If the Secretary genuinely has so low an opinion of this officer, I don’t see it (this reduction) being out of bounds. I see the previous failures to reduce as the problem…

  4. James Joyner says:


    I see the previous failures to reduce as the problem…

    I’m very sympathetic to that argument, actually.

    My problem here, aside from precedent, is that Sinclair was chosen as the poster boy for the Army getting touch with sexual offenders and is being punished accordingly. I’d be okay with that had he actually been convicted of sexual assault. The Army’s case fell apart and he’s being punished as if it hadn’t.

  5. Yolo Contendere says:

    The Army’s case fell apart and he’s being punished as if it hadn’t.

    No, he’s not. You say yourself you’d be happy to see him dishonorably discharged and stripped of his pension. That would be a much bigger punishment than what he is receiving, and what he would have received had he been convicted.

    I’m not a vet, so I have to ask, do reductions in rank only happen when convicted of a crime?

  6. @James Joyner:

    Saying the allegations weren’t proven is different than saying they allegations weren’t particularly egregious. And it should be noted that Stanley McChrystal wasn’t actually convicted of anything.

    And, yes, McChrystal committed a grave offense against the Constitution. That’s actually quite important.

    And I call bull on this. If I got caught making fun of my boss, I would expect to get fired. I would not expect my earned retirement benefits to be retroactively reduced, and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a crime.

  7. the Q says:

    So what would be an appropriate response by the Secretary for a two star who pled guilty to adultery and stealing from Uncle Sam via illegal use of a credit card and disobeyed a commanders order, possessed pornography in a Muslim war zone, requested nude pictures of female subordinates?

    A slap on the wrist like all the other generals received?

    The services are all about making an example of servicepeople who step out of line.

  8. David in KC says:

    @Yolo Contendere: you can be administratively reduced in rank outside of UCMJ or Non-Judicial Punishment. Level of proof to support an administrative reduction is more likely than not. I haven’t been following this case at all. I would guess that part of the plea on the criminal charges included agreeing to the administrative action. Neither side wanted to go to trial, downside was huge for both. But the downside for the accused was bigger if convicted on all counts. He still gets to retire, he still gets the retirement t benefits at his seperated rank and he doesn’t go to jail. The army gets him out and sends a msg that this type of behavior does have real consequences.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Yolo Contendere: I think he’s a dirtbag and a disgrace to the uniform. And I strongly suspect he was guilty of offenses much more egregious than those he pled to. But his punishment was far more severe than typical—in fact, unprecedented—for the charges for which he was proven guilty.

    @the Q: Kip Ward committed much more egregious crimes and was only stripped one rank.

  10. the Q says:

    Mr. Joyner, a kid in Texas killed four people in a car accident and did no time since he used the “I am a rich kid who knows no better since I’ve lead a sheltered life” defense, so therefore any other rich kid who goes to jail for 3 years shouldn’t because this guy didn’t?

    Is that about right?

  11. Matt Bernius says:

    UPDATE: Upon further investigation, I think I’m wrong here.

    James, this demonstrates what’s so special about OTB. Not only did you continue to reflect on a post after your made it, you were willing to publicly admit you got it wrong (including keeping your original copy there for all to see).


  12. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I think there’s a certain rough justice at play here that appeals to me — “we’re going to bust you back to the last rank where you performed honorably.” It’s saying that he won his last two promotions under false pretenses, essentially, and turning back the clock.

  13. Franklin says:

    Thanks for the update!