COL Johnson Case: The Fallout for Military Spouses
The current prosecution of COL James Johnson on a variety of charges, including fraud, bigamy and conduct unbecoming an officer is highlighting problems with the way the government dispenses justice to career military officers and NCOs convicted of wrong doing.
First, an overview of the case: COL Johnson was well on his way up the stairway to the stars. He received command of the prestigious 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy – long considered the plum assignment for combat arms officers headed for flag rank. But in March of 2011, he was relieved of command, after evidence surfaced that he had committed a series of crimes. Among the allegations:
- COL Johnson, who was married at the time, had arranged government travel, worth tens of thousands of dollars, to facilitate meeting an Iraqi mistress in the Netherlands.
- He provided a government cell phone to his mistress and her family, which racked up $80,000 in usage charges.
- Improperly steering a lucrative military contract to his mistress’s father, hiring him as a “cultural advisor.”
- Falsifying at least 18 travel vouchers, and receiving payment for them.
- “Marrying” his Iraqi mistress while he was still married to his spouse, Kris Johnson.
- Forging a government document (1 count).
- Four specifications of adultery – a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
- Six specifications of conduct unbecoming an officer.
Johnson pled guilty to 15 out of a total of 27 counts. A number of other counts were thrown out yesterday, leaving only two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for the jury of five colonels to consider.
If convicted, Johnson could face up to 54 years in jail. He could also be stripped of his retirement benefits – and therein lies the rub: The government cannot strip COL Johnson of his retirement pay without also stripping his wife, Kris Johnson – who by all accounts is blameless, of her share of Johnson’s military pension.
Normally, even if a military couple divorces, the spouse is entitled to half of the servicemember’s retirement pay in recognition of 20+ years of service and sacrifice (subject to some caveats under individual state law). Indeed, military spouses do forgo untold professional and educational opportunities while they engage in repeated PCS moves with their sponsors – and unemployment among military spouses is over 3 times the national average, at 26 percent.
Further, to underscore the sacrifice involved, many of those military spouses who are working are working lower-wage jobs than they may otherwise be earning had they not become members of the military family.
The problem: Kris Johnson, who has committed no wrong and has been cooperative with the investigation, faces the loss of over a million dollars in pension benefits, if her husband loses his military retirement pay.
This is a problem, because it creates a powerful disincentive for military spouses to report wrongdoing. The current whistleblower protections normally afforded to employees do not apply to them. Any spouse who becomes aware that her husband (or his wife) is committing serious official misconduct, and reports it, must face the prospect of becoming impoverished in her golden years, if the retirement benefit is stripped away.
“I know spouses are told, if they know their husbands are having an affair, ‘Just keep your mouth shut,’” Kris Johnson said, according to the Fay Observer. “If he gets thrown out or dismissed, he’ll lose his retirement. Let him quietly retire so you can get your half.’ That’s tolerating unethical behavior,” she said.
The Department of Defense should create a process whereby innocent spouses receive some protection against having their economic futures devastated by the loss of this pension benefit, through no fault of their own. It is doubly important to provide this protection to military spouses who blow the whistle on official misconduct, allowing the military to purge corrupt leaders from its ranks (and make room for better leadership in these senior billets.)
There are a number of parallels in the civilian world:
First, the Internal Revenue Service does make allowances for innocent spouses, and provides for relief from penalties for unpaid taxes and unfiled returns where the evidence indicates that the spouse committed no wrongdoing or was herself deceived.
Second, pensions in the private sector are generally exempt against civil judgments and bankruptcies. While you might get sued and lose, resulting in a judgment against you for, say, $1 million, no creditor can go to your employer’s pension fund or 401(k) and force that fund to release a lump sum. They may get a charging order against the income from that pension that accrues to you, but they would have no claim against an innocent spouse.
There are a lot of military spouses watching this case closely. If Kris Johnson is hung out to dry, the government should not expect much in the way of cooperation from them in other cases, going forward. The incentives for military spouses will overwhelmingly be to look the other way and keep their mouths shut.
The Justice system may yet strip Mrs. Johnson of her retirement benefits. But since she is blameless in the whole affair, that would not be justice, by any standard.
What do you think a military spouse should do in this situation? Tell us in the comments.