Nation/World

Senior Navy official sexually harassed women for years, Pentagon watchdog finds

WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department’s top watchdog has found that a senior Navy official sexually harassed women in his office for years, a pattern of behavior that employees described to investigators as an “open secret,” according to a new report released Wednesday.

Several women said that Ronnie Booth, the former auditor general of the Navy, propositioned them sexually, and one employee said she had a years-long sexual relationship with him. Seven women said they either transferred out from under his supervision or requested to do so.

Booth denied the allegations and said in a brief voice message to the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General that “I don’t know where these accusations are coming from.”

In response to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Wednesday, Booth said in a voice mail that he knew that the report substantiated allegations against him but insisted that “those are allegations, and I take it as that.”

“I see no credibility behind those, and that’s my comment,” he said. “They are strictly allegations, and I don’t have any other comment than that.”

He did not return a request to respond to additional questions.

The 56-page report was released on the same day the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel held a hearing on sexual assault in the military and retaliation against victims who report it.

On Wednesday, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks also announced the beginning of a 90-day review of sexual assault and harassment in the military by a new, independent commission established by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“Every member of the Total Force deserves a workplace free of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Hicks tweeted.

The inspector general’s office, which is headed by acting inspector general Sean O’Donnell, said it substantiated that Booth had “engaged in a pervasive pattern of sexual harassment and quid pro quo sexual propositions when interacting with female subordinates at the Naval Audit Service.”

Booth, who retired under investigation in 2019, had been a member of the Senior Executive Service since 2004 and worked for the Naval Audit Service for years. His office, with headquarters at the Washington Navy Yard and more than 300 employees, scrutinizes Navy programs for effectiveness, efficiency and accountability.

The inspector general found that Booth propositioned at least five female employees, including four whom he requested sexual favors from in exchange for career advancement, “all under the guise of professional career ‘mentoring’ that the employees expected from a senior leader.”

The woman who said she had a sporadic, long-term relationship with him told investigators that she believed it to be consensual “but later realized that Mr. Booth’s conduct throughout her career in establishing a sexual relationship with her, a subordinate, and holding career advancements over her, fit the definition of sexual harassment” under Defense Department standards, the report said.

The Defense Department has faced questions about its handling of sexual assault and harassment accusations, and predatory behavior.

Of 56 office employees interviewed, 19 said Booth acted professionally, 14 said he had a reputation as a “womanizer,” and three described him as being a “predator” with a reputation for pursuing young women in the office. Four women said other employees warned them about Booth.

The employee who said she had a sexual relationship with Booth described a pattern in which they left work, met for lunch and then went to either a hotel room he paid for at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling or his brother’s apartment in nearby Suitland, Md. They also had encounters during official travel assignments, she said.

Another woman said that in 2009, Booth offered to help advance her career in exchange for sex when his wife was out of town. The woman said that Booth told her he had been accused of sexual harassment, “but everything was swept under the rug because he knows how to play ball with the upper management.”

Booth was one of three finalists for the auditor general position in 2018, the report said.

Before making a hiring decision, the Navy’s then-undersecretary, Thomas Modly, decided to carry out a climate survey in the service that October after it received an anonymous complaint about the leadership of the Naval Audit Service. Four respondents raised concerns about Booth’s behavior, according to the report.

In an interview with the inspector general, Modly said that he misinterpreted an acronym in the survey referring to Booth and did not realize there were problems with him, and that other Navy officials had not flagged any issues. Modly decided to hire Booth later that year.

Modly, who did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, eventually requested an adverse background check on Booth, which came back clear, and Booth was promoted in January 2019, the report said.

The situation surfaced in public six months later when Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sent a letter to the Navy asking why Booth had been elevated despite a history of sexual harassment allegations. Bloomberg News reported on Speier’s letter, the Defense Department inspector general’s office launched an investigation a month later, and Booth announced he was planning to retire.

Modly later become acting Navy secretary and resigned under pressure last year in connection with the coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The Defense Department inspector general found no wrongdoing on his part in the Booth case.

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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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