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Posted on Jan 15, 2002 Print this Article

CMR LEGAL DEFENSE UPDATE

BACKGROUND: On April 22, 1996, a lawsuit was filed in the Washington D.C. U.S. District Court against the Center for Military Readiness--an independent, non-partisan, 501(c)(3) educational organization that specializes in military personnel issues--and CMR President Elaine Donnelly. The plaintiff is Lt. Carey Dunai Lohrenz, who was trained to fly the F-14 in the same class as the late Lt. Kara Hultgreen. On October 25, 1994, Lt. Hultgreen died while attempting to land on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. With the help of Susan Barnes, a feminist activist and Denver-based attorney associated with former-Rep. Patricia Schroeder, Lohrenz accused Elaine Donnelly of libel and defamation, and blamed CMR for her inability to succeed in carrier aviation. At issue is the 1995 CMR Special Report: Double Standards in Naval Aviation, which included actual training records released as a last resort by Lt. Patrick J. Burns, one of Lohrenz' instructors. During a fair but favorable segment of CBS 60 Minutes in April 1998, Lt. Burns said that he had repeatedly expressed his concerns about the women's safety to local commanders, but his warnings were ignored due to post-Tailhook political pressures. Shortly after the death of Lt. Hultgreen, Lt. Burns approached CMR and asked for help. CMR has invoked the First Amendment in defending the right to comment on issues of major public importance, including credible evidence of double standards in naval aviation training. Contrary to official denials at the time of Lt. Hultgreen's death, the first two women trained to fly the F-14 had benefited from extraordinary concessions in training that elevated risks in the already dangerous field of carrier aviation. Some Navy spokesmen led the public to believe that Lt. Hultgreen's death was the result of engine failure. Two Navy reports later confirmed that the accident was primarily caused--as most aviation accidents are--by pilot error. There was no need for the Navy to "vindicate" Lt. Hultgreen, a courageous pilot who died in service to her country. By issuing statements that misled the public about the circumstances of her death and the training that preceded it, some Navy officials apparently were trying to vindicate their own actions regarding the female pilots. THE ISSUE: SAFETY AND HIGH STANDARDS IN NAVAL AVIATION Lts. Hultgreen and Lohrenz were allowed to qualify for carrier aviation despite a pattern of low scores and major errors marked with "pink sheets" for unsatisfactory performance. Then-Lt. Lohrenz, first described by CMR as "Pilot B," had a dismal record of dangerously inconsistent performance. Lohrenz earned seven "pink sheets," one of which was not recorded so that she could graduate. After writing to the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Strom Thurmond, Donnelly met several times with the Navy's top officials, including the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jeremy Boorda, and the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Stanley Arthur. Adm. Arthur sent an emissary (Rear Adm. Lyle Bien) to investigate the facts that, with only a few minor discrepancies, were found to be "largely accurate." CMR also learned that Navy leaders had no intention of doing anything to correct the problem. In the belief that aviation safety is a matter of public concern, CMR published the comprehensive CMR Special Report: Double Standards in Naval Aviation, which was the subject of news and commentary in the Washington Times and many other newspapers. The 20-page CMR Special Report was supported by 104 pages of training records and related documents. In her complaint, Lohrenz claimed that more public discussion about the possibility of special treatment for women in naval aviation training caused her to lose confidence and her career. In May 1995, a Field Naval Aviation Evaluation Board (FNAEB) removed Carey Lohrenz from carrier aviation. Documents obtained from the Navy indicate that this action was taken due to poor performance trends observed long before the CMR Special Report was published. Air wing commanders, squadron instructors, and landing signal officers repeatedly expressed concern about Lohrenz' chronic tendency to land dangerously "high and fast." A senior landing signal officer described her carrier approaches as "unpredictable, undisciplined and unresponsive." Several other signed statements indicated that Lohrenz frequently disregarded instructors' warnings about unsafe practices, and blamed her mistakes on others. Interestingly enough, FNAEB appeals written by Lohrenz in 1995 conceded major points that she is contesting now. This reflects the unethical strategy of attorney Susan Barnes. To support her client's charges in this action and another lawsuit against the Navy, Barnes concocted a bizarre "Tailhook Underground" conspiracy theory. In a sworn affidavit, she alleged that resentful male aviators and an admiral--most of whom were completely unknown to Donnelly--plotted with her to destroy the career of Carey Lohrenz. The conspiracy story was preposterous, but it served to extract an undeserved $150,000 settlement from the Navy. Discovery documents and testimony gathered over the past five years have demolished Barnes' unsupported allegations against the Navy and CMR. Nevertheless, Ms. Barnes is still searching for something--anything--to support her case. Navy officials capitulated with a generous settlement for Lohrenz, but CMR is fighting back against the politically motivated calumny that underlies the lawsuit. Excerpts of recent testimony demonstrate why it is so important to defend the CMR position and win this case. Attorneys are confident of vindication, because the CMR Special Report was published with due care and without malice. Prior to publication, author Elaine Donnelly went straight to top authorities to verify the truth of the situation. Statements published in the CMR Special Report were true and absolutely protected by the First Amendment. Relevant facts were confirmed by several investigations, including the Naval Inspector General's 1997 Report on the Integration of Women into Carrier Air Wing Eleven, which found no evidence of discrimination against Lohrenz. Furthermore, the Plaintiff is a public figure, as defined in libel law. Scores of contemporaneous news reports, dating back to 1993, indicate that controversy surrounding women combat pilots and safety in naval aviation were issues of public interest and concern. CL010602C The Center for Military Readiness is being represented by noted constitutional lawyer Kent Masterson Brown, Frank Northam, and Christopher Shaughnessy of the firm Webster, Chamberlain & Bean in Washington D.C. Tax-deductible contributions to the CMR Legal Defense Fund may be addressed to CMR/LDF, P. O. Box 51600, Livonia, Michigan 48151. For more information, please see additional Summaries and Legal Defense Updates in the Issues section of this website.
Posted on Jan 15, 2002 Print this Article