Navy captain exonerated after removal – quietly

By Mike Hixenbaugh The Virginian-Pilot ©


Hours after an admiral dismissed Capt. James CoBell as the head of one of the Navy’s fleet readiness centers, the service distributed a news release announcing its latest officer firing.

Not mentioned in the September 2012 announcement: Rear Adm. C.J. Jaynes made the decision to remove CoBell despite a command investigation that found no evidence of punishable misconduct.

Nearly a year later, a panel of admirals sided with the investigator, essentially exonerating CoBell following a lengthy and unpublicized hearing at Norfolk Naval Station.

Despite the unusual reversal, the aviation maintenance officer likely will never return to a position of command in the Navy, and a Google search of his name still gives the impression that the investigation faulted him for abusive and unethical behavior.

That’s the cost of being dismissed for cause in the Navy, even when the cause isn’t substantiated.

CoBell, a Chesapeake resident, was one of 24 commanding officers fired for misconduct in 2012. In each case, the Navy generated headlines by announcing the dismissal.

But what happens after a skipper is relieved rarely garners as much attention.

The Navy made no apparent effort to disclose the results of CoBell’s July board of inquiry – a panel of three admirals tasked with deciding whether CoBell should be allowed to remain in the Navy, and, if not, whether his actions warranted retirement at a reduced rank and pay grade.

The hearing was CoBell’s first formal chance to defend himself.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, The Virginian-Pilot obtained copies of the original investigation and an audio recording of the July hearing.

At the hearing, CoBell acknowledged mistakes that led to misperceptions about his leadership of Fleet Readiness Center Mid-Atlantic, one of eight centers worldwide responsible for maintaining, repairing and overhauling Navy aircraft. Based at Oceana Naval Air Station, the command employs around 2,700 sailors and civilians.

CoBell denied accusations that he abused travel privileges and verbally disparaged subordinates and required them to perform personal favors.

“Would I do things different? Knowing what I know today, absolutely,” CoBell told the panel, which also heard sworn testimony from a dozen other witnesses, mostly supporters of the ousted officer.

CoBell and his attorneys declined to be interviewed for this article. Jaynes, the admiral who made the decision to fire CoBell citing a “loss of confidence in his ability to command,” did not respond to an interview request submitted through her public affairs officer.

Jaynes, who is based at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, ordered an investigation into CoBell’s leadership practices last year. After conducting several interviews and examining command climate surveys, the investigating officer found no evidence to substantiate the claims.

“I do not believe this meets the threshold of loss of confidence nor warrants the removal of the commanding officer for cause,” the investigator wrote.

Among the accusations: that CoBell abused his authority by taking too much time off; requiring subordinates to give him rides to a luxury auto repair shop; and having a command subscription to The Wall Street Journal delivered to his home.

The investigating officer found that CoBell’s absences came after the death of his father; that the rides to the car shop were requested, not ordered; and that the newspaper was sent to CoBell’s house at the direction of his executive officer because of delivery issues on base. CoBell carried the paper to work each morning and made it available to the entire command.

The investigating officer determined that there were perception problems within the command that warranted correction, but that none rose to the level of fraud, waste or abuse.

The investigator also vetted claims that CoBell was volatile, moody and disparaging of his staff.

Those allegations primarily came from three employees, two of whom had already moved on, the investigator wrote. Several others who were interviewed, including the command master chief, gave CoBell high marks as a leader.

In his testimony, CoBell said he was stunned when he received a call from Jaynes in September last year instructing him to meet her at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service office at Oceana. There, she explained that she was suspending him pending an investigation.

It was the first he had heard about any concerns regarding his leadership and temperament, he told the panel of admirals.

“I think they confused passion and confidence for arrogance and anger,” CoBell said.

At the end of an all-day hearing, the board decided that CoBell should stay in the service. Further, the admirals unanimously agreed that he hadn’t committed any of the misconduct for which he had already been punished.

A board of inquiry cannot overturn an executive decision to remove someone from command. CoBell can continue to serve, but his dismissal remains part of his service record.

CoBell, who has spent 29 years in the Navy, recently received orders to serve at the Pentagon, where he likely will finish his career.

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