Crime and Justice

The flying fraternity: Whistleblower says Guard retaliated against him

Jeff Rector sits behind his desk

Jeff Rector sits at his dining room table at his house in Jericho with documents relating to his case. Behind are his uniform and his father’s honors as a World War II veteran. Photo Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Editor’s note: “The flying fraternity: Whistleblower says Guard retaliated against him” is the seventh in a series of stories about allegations that male officials have mistreated women, have abused alcohol and have been given preferential treatment by superiors. Read Part 1: “Top Gun Culture Pervades National Guard” here, Part 2: “Guard commander’s wings clipped after secret rendezvous” here, Part 3: “Africa, alcohol and the Afterburner Club” here, Part 4: “The Ghost Soldiers of the Vermont National Guard” here, Part 5: “Female Guard members claim barrage of harassment” here and Part 6 “Chaplain’s female assistant claims coercion” here

White River Junction native Jeff Rector was a young enlisted avionics technician in the late 1980s at the U.S. Air Force Base in Plattsburgh, New York, and he missed home.

Luckily for him, a colorful crew of Vermont Air National Guard members visited Plattsburgh once a week to have their equipment tested. “I would always choose those days to work in the scheduling area,” Rector recalled.

“They were always positive, enthusiastic, energetic and boastful,” he said. “They were also selective. But they knew I was from Vermont, and they wanted me to join. They wanted me to be a Green Mountain Boy.”

Following a recruitment period that netted him a few patches and a hat emblazoned with the Guard emblem, Rector took a job with the Vermont Guard in 1990.

The son of a World War II veteran, Rector enlisted at age 17 in the Air Force the fall of his senior year in high school. In his three decades of service, Rector has served in a variety positions — from recruiter to F-16 aircraft maintenance officer. He has been recognized with a number of awards and decorations for his service along the way, including the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal. He maintained an outstanding service record throughout his career, with officials describing his management abilities in a 2016 officer performance report as an “extremely talented officer” who was trusted to take on the base’s toughest issues.

For years, Rector’s dedication to the Guard was unwavering. Like many military members, Rector has missed date nights and kids’ birthday parties for drill weekends and deployments. For nearly a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Rector worked a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. overnight shift in aircraft maintenance to support Guard pilots who patrolled the East Coast around the clock.

Now, despite a long career he looks back on fondly, Rector, 50, no longer considers himself a Green Mountain Boy, nor do the powers that be at the Air National Guard Base.

‘I’m no longer inside the fence’

In 2015, Rector was escorted off the premises for alleged misconduct, and he was banned from setting foot in any Vermont National Guard facility.

His termination was without justification, says Rector and others familiar with the matter. He believes he is the victim of a clear-cut case of retaliation and reprisal wrought on a whistleblower.

Rector has tried to appeal his termination for more than two years now. The court battles have emptied his bank account and exacerbated the post-traumatic stress disorder he was diagnosed with last January.

“I wasn’t a ‘yes’ man,” Rector told VTDigger in an interview. “I gave my honest, open opinion. If I saw something going wrong, I said things and I did things. And that’s probably why I’m no longer inside the fence, I’m outside the fence.”

Jeff Rector's uniform

Jeff Rector’s uniform displays his many military medals and ribbons. Photo Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

In 2010, Rector was appointed to serve as the Burlington Wing’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), a position that involved investigating credible allegations of sexual impropriety.

In that role, Rector was involved in multiple investigations regarding senior officials who were later removed from their posts.

Those officials included Thomas Jackman, the base’s former wing commander who flew an F-16 jet to Washington to meet a woman he had been flirting with. Rector alerted leadership to Jackman’s flight to Washington in early 2015.

While Jackman’s flight was deemed inappropriate by his superiors, and he was removed as wing commander, he was allowed to retire quietly with benefits — chiefly because of his close friendship with Vermont’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, according to Rector and other Guard members.

At the time he brought the matter to the leadership’s attention, Rector said he was promised federal whistleblower protections by Brig. Gen. Joel Clark and now retired Col. Ellen Abbott, the former state judge advocate general.

Despite that pledge, Rector says leadership retaliated against him for disclosing Jackman’s indiscretions. Ironically, because of the uniqueness of his independent, investigative position — he served as both a civilian for the state of Vermont and as a federal military official — he was not afforded whistleblower protection.

Within a matter of a months, Rector faced a flurry of what he views as trumped-up allegations that ultimately led to his removal. Guard officials would not comment on Rector’s case, saying they would not discuss any personnel issues.

One of the subjects of Rector’s investigations, now retired Chief Master Sgt. Mark Parish was asked by Col. Michael “Torch” Ahmann to testify against Rector in exchange for a lighter sentence for his own alleged sexual misconduct. The deal allowed Parish to retire with full benefits, according to a notarized statement.

“I felt that if I didn’t say something that would help the Vermont [Guard] leadership in regard to the Lt. Col. Rector investigation, they would change their mind on my retirement conditions,” Parish said in the statement.

Initially, Rector said he was unsure where the investigation was focused, and early interviews and allegations cast a wide net. And Rector’s immediate commander, Col. Rick Lizzari, viewed the inquiry as a fishing expedition, and objected. Lizzari said he was later pressured not to vouch for Rector, telling him in a text message that “it was too much risk to me personally.”

The three charges cited for Rector’s termination were that he had threatened an official, impeded an internal investigation and was in dereliction of duty. Rector’s alleged threat was a text suggesting that if he wasn’t treated fairly, he would alert congressional offices or, perhaps, the press.

Count two concerns allegations that he impeded the Parish sexual misconduct investigation. Rector, who assisted the investigating officer in the case, contends that he was entrapped by Guard leaders who placed Parish in the office next to him during the investigation. Rector says the situation made it impossible for him to avoid all interaction with Parish, thwarting his ability to remain a neutral actor in the probe.

In his notarized statement, Parish agreed that his relocation was likely made to entrap Rector. Rector also had spoken to the woman who had called for the investigation into Parish, an interaction Rector describes as nothing more than a wellness check but which leadership deemed inappropriate.

Rector said the third charge against him — dereliction of duty — was also without merit. Rector was aware that a Guard member had been caught with narcotics off the base and was accused of not immediately reporting the information to the Guard. Rector acknowledges he had heard rumors about the charge, but says he reported the allegation to higher-ups in February 2014, after a New Hampshire police department had formally charged the Guard member.

Reputation as a stickler for the rules

The man who replaced Jackman as wing commander, now retired Col. Patrick “Pig” Guinee, brought Rector into his office on Sept. 11, 2015, to discuss the allegations against him. The conversation started out friendly, but turned ugly when Guinee threatened Rector. “(I will) break your fucking finger,” Guinee said, if Rector did not keep his mouth shut, according to a recording of the meeting. About the same time, Guinee sent an email advising Col. Michael Morgan, now retired, to convince Rector to “shut the fuck up.” Rector said Morgan, who lost a bid for a seat in the House of Representatives this year, advised him to tone down his opposition to the investigation.

U.S. Air Force Col. Patrick Guinee, Wing Commander of the Vermont Air National Guard, walks through the Arlington National Cemetery to pay his respects on April 19, 2015. U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Dana Alyce-Schwarz

Rector said he was used to the criticism and had a reputation as an official who strictly interpreted the rules. He was similarly attacked when he warned Lt. Col. Chris Caputo in an email not to go off base without signing out during a spring 2013 deployment to Djibouti. Caputo wrote in reply: “Stop the fucking drama or I will find someone else to do your job.”

As the probe continued, Col. Lizzari — who had advised against the Rector investigation — was replaced by Col. Henry Harder, a former pilot and close friend of Cray. Rector believes that “he was just placed in that position as my supervisor to execute the plan set forth by leadership with no resistance.”

Feeling targeted and harassed, Rector raised objections with the Vermont National Guard’s state inspector general and its State Equal Employment Management in January 2016. He was told his complaints did not merit further examination, and the Guard probe moved forward.

At around that same time, Col. Morgan was relocated by management to the State Headquarters and was replaced by Col. David Smith, another F-16 pilot close to leadership. Smith signed the official order recommending that Rector be suspended.

Even though Rector’s identity as the member who reported Jackman was supposed to stay secret, various Guard members approached him on base to say they knew he had gone after their former wing commander. Some said they were disappointed that Rector hadn’t taken a more tolerant approach that could have saved Jackman’s job.

Rector met with Rick Brehm, the labor relations specialist for the Vermont National Guard, on Feb. 19, 2016. In that meeting, which Rector recorded, Brehm never mentioned that Rector should have been given access to a human resources officer who could help him resign without losing benefits.

Jackman, on the other hand, was notified by Guard leadership before he was pushed out, enabling him to submit resignation paperwork and preempt any punishment. Brehm talked about how Jackman was treated in his meeting with Rector. “[Jackman] called me hourly — “Rick, you’re going to tell me that I need to resign the day before?”

Honors of Jeff Rector’s father, T/5 Walton Rector, a World War II veteran. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Rector said he received no similar heads-up. On March 18, 2016, he was escorted off the base by an armed officer and placed on administrative leave, according to documents obtained by VTDigger. A subsequent letter recommended that Rector be terminated from his civilian position. Later that year, the Guard sought to dishonorably discharge him from the military, a move that threatened his pension, health benefits and children’s educational benefits.

In his December 2017 notarized statement, Parish explained that Brehm was loyally following through on directions from Guard leadership. “Mr. Brehm was placed in my investigation to leverage information against Lt. Col. Rector and report anything incriminating to the Vermont ANG leadership,” Parish wrote.

The ‘leadership lay in wait’

Adam Augustine Carter, Rector’s lawyer, who has appealed the termination, says that was part of Guard leadership’s plan. “What I think occurred here is the Guard leadership lay in wait until something happened that they could seize on, and then they pounced,” Carter said.

Rector appealed the decision and began gathering exculpatory information. But he says key information requests for unclassified emails and depositions with Guard members were rejected by the Vermont National Guard judge advocate general, Gonzalo Pinacho.

“Once my legal team made the written request for information, the powers that be would either flat out deny it or say they would get to it — more of a strategic delay — and then never produce it,” Rector said.

Then, in August 2016, command added a new charge to Rector’s file: making inappropriate and sexually harassing comments. The allegation came from an administrative assistant who had worked with Rector for less than a month.

Rector denied the charges and his lawyer filed an objection, noting that the front of the woman’s written statement was signed on March 16, 2016, but that the back was signed two weeks later, on the 31st. (Rector said his commander, Col. Harder, never opened a formal investigation into the allegation.)

The former assistant, who served with Rector for a year and a half, wrote a supportive statement attesting to his professionalism. “I am truly taken aback by these allegations,” the woman wrote. “He is very family-oriented and seemed to care about the general well-being of those around him.”

Two other women submitted statements vouching for Rector’s character, including a woman Rector had helped in his position as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. The woman wrote that after she was sexually assaulted, “the sole person I thought I could talk to outside my family was Lt. Col. Rector.”

Rector said the accusation against him was never fully investigated, and he is currently appealing the charge. Another woman who dealt with Rector in his position as SARC told VTDigger that “Jeff Rector was very supportive, and helped me out a lot with my investigation.”

During the removal action appeal, Rector said he was excluded from any contact with colleagues by Air Guard leadership. He said that Pinacho, the Vermont National Guard state judge advocate general, for instance, prohibited Guard employees from communicating with him.

“Everybody was told to stay away from Rector, not to associate yourself with him,” a former Guard member told VTDigger. “After he was let go, he worked for a bit at Costco, and if you were seen talking to him there, you would be talked to by leadership.”

Accusations of unequal treatment

Six former Guard members who worked with Rector told VTDigger that he was well-respected on the base, and that his firing seemed unfair.

They point out that while officials accused of sexual impropriety or excessive drinking and partying were allowed to quietly retire or even be promoted, Rector was stripped of his federal employment, his military benefits,and his security clearance.

“From my perspective, he’s one of the best commanders I’ve interacted with throughout my career,” one former Guard member said. “For Jeff to be targeted like that was shitty, and seemed unjustified.”

“Everybody loved Jeff,” another former official said. “He told leaders they were out of line, and now they are trying to ruin his life.”

Three former members said command-directed investigations like the one Rector was subjected to were often far from exhaustive or fair, and could easily be used to target unpopular members or protect favored ones. One former member said after he requested an investigation into a popular senior official, neither he nor other eyewitnesses were interviewed, and the charges were dropped.

“I saw a pattern that when leaders are trying to squash something or make it go away, they will only ask certain people who will give them the result they are looking for,” a former member said.

Another former member said that within two hours of providing a supposedly anonymous complaint against a senior official, he was brought before leadership and yelled at for complaining.

As part of his fight, Rector reached out to all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, as well as Gov. Phil Scott, the de facto commander-in-chief of the Vermont National Guard. VTDigger reviewed the correspondence, which included dozens of pages of evidence and details describing an unpleasant culture on the base.

Jaye Pershing Johnson, Scott’s legal counsel, listened to Rector’s story, and touched base with both Vermont Guard and Department of Defense officials to ensure that the proper processes were being taken in Rector’s case. Johnson said everything appeared aboveboard, adding that the governor’s office decided not to intervene because, “we felt that it was a personnel matter, and not appropriate.”

Rector’s other pleas were all but ignored, save for a Sanders staffer, who has helped Rector navigate questions about his whistleblower status.

In response to Rector’s appeals, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s state director, John Tracy, responded with a two-sentence reply.

“I have received the documentation,” Tracy wrote on Aug. 17, 2017. “Obtaining legal counsel seems to be an appropriate course of action.”

All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation declined to be interviewed for this story. In a joint statement, they said, “We take great pride in helping Vermonters whenever we can, but there are sometimes aspects of a person’s situation that we cannot weigh in on, including personnel and legal matters.”

“We take any allegations of misconduct at the Guard very seriously, and believe they must be investigated thoroughly and impartially,” they wrote. “If there was misconduct, we fully expect that it will be dealt with appropriately and those responsible be held to account.”

One of the many binders of documents in Jeff Rector’s case. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Rector has also shared his story with state lawmakers, including Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, the retiring chair of the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs. Head said she was empathetic to Rector’s story, but felt the Legislature wasn’t the proper venue for his complaint.

“The concerns he expressed were unfortunately outside our purview,” Head said. “We didn’t think it was fitting for us to get involved in a personnel issue.”

‘Element of payback’ stands out

Vermont is the only state in the nation where the Legislature elects the National Guard’s adjutant general, and Head has worked, unsuccessfully, to bring more oversight and vetting to the selection process. The next election, slated for February, will be to select a successor to Cray, who Gov. Scott said on Friday would not seek another term. One of those expected to run to replace him is now retired Brig. Gen. David Baczewski, Rector’s former boss.

In conversation, Rector appears positive and good-humored despite two-plus years of fighting the Guard charges. Still, he has seen deep and lasting personal and professional damage from his fight with the Guard.

Since he was fired, Rector has twice been all but hired for a federal job — first at the Transportation Security Administration and then at Customs and Border Protection — only to see his application yanked because of the Guard-related charges and being stripped of his security clearance. A federal government official said Rector was “fully qualified” for the jobs he applied for, and that “people wanted to hire him.”

Rector’s treatment by the Guard might seem harsh compared with other leaders like T.J. Jackman, Chris Caputo and Mark Parish, who engaged in more problematic behavior but retired without losing security clearances or benefit packages.

Bill Devereaux, one of Rector’s lawyers in the preceding, said what stands out is “the element of payback.”

“Rector is an anal-retentive guy, who goes by the books and the numbers,” Devereaux says. “He did important work as the sexual assault response coordinator. But that work put a target on his back.”

Despite a series of roadblocks in the federal and military legal systems and a current command that he says continues to restrict due process, Rector remains hopeful that his termination appeal will be considered at a higher level, and he’ll be allowed to quietly retire with the benefits he’s earned after many years of service.

Help us investigate: Do you know what’s going on at the Vermont National Guard? Contact Jasper Craven at 802-274-0365 or [email protected]

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is a freelance reporter for VTDigger.

A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news site dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger from 2015-2017.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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