The Coast Guard admiral in charge of Alaska has broken his public silence on charges against the survivor of a helicopter crash that killed three people from Air Station Sitka.
Lt. Lance Leone faces charges that include the military equivalent of negligent homicide. It will be up to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo to decide whether those charges proceed to a full court martial, get handled administratively, or are dropped altogether.
But Leone’s attorney says comments Ostebo made on a Juneau radio station compromise his ability to be fair in the case.
Ostebo appeared on KJNO’s Action Line program on Feb. 10. During the hour-long talk show, he was asked about the case against Lt. Lance Leone. Here’s some of what he said:
“I think where the American people ought to look at this, and the people here, is this isn’t a witch hunt,” Ostebo told Action Line host Murray Walsh. “This is a process that we go through, and at the end of the day the American people should feel proud of their military, that we hold folks accountable, that we thoughtfully look at these things, that we provide all the rights and support for the defendant that they deserve and have earned and are legally bound to, and have followed those rules.”
After the accident in July 2010, Leone recovered from his injuries and was cleared to return to flight, pending some training. Ostebo took command of the Coast Guard’s District 17 in May. Sometime between then and September, Leone’s orders for training were canceled, and the charges were issued.
“We came here in May and that was something we had to deal with. We’re dealing with it the way we’re supposed to,” he said. “And I understand the people of Sitka. I understand the emotion involved in this. I’m OK with that. My shoulders are big enough to handle all that.”
He said the process is ongoing, and that he has 90 days from the end of a December hearing to decide whether to proceed with the Uniform Code of Military Justice (or UCMJ) or handle the matter administratively.
News of the North, a program on KJNO’s sister station KINY, reported Ostebo’s comments. They appeared to deal mostly with the procedure of the case, and not his own opinions. But Leone’s attorney has a different interpretation.
“Very, very few commanders – in fact I cannot remember a single commander who would ever discuss an ongoing case with the media,” said John Smith, Leone’s private attorney. The retired Army colonel has practiced military law for 30 years. He said Ostebo’s assessment of the judicial process left out a third option: to drop the charges entirely.
“Well it sounds to me like Adm. Ostebo has already made up his mind. He has made up his mind that Lt. Leone will be punished either via the UCMJ or administratively.”
And Smith objects to Ostebo’s statement that the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a “lane” the Coast Guard is traveling down in order to investigate the crash.
“The military justice system is not a lane,” he said. “It is a very serious process that focuses on the alleged wrongdoings of an individual.”
Leone’s defense team maintains their client has done nothing wrong, and is only guilty of surviving the crash.
Lt. Veronica Colbath is a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard in Alaska. She says the Coast Guard can’t comment on an ongoing investigation, and that includes commenting on concerns someone raises about the case.
But she did say that Ostebo was invited on KJNO to discuss work the Coast Guard is doing in the Arctic. During the hour-long conversation, he was asked where things stood with the Leone case.
Throughout the case, the Coast Guard has told KCAW it won’t make public comments until the proceedings are settled. And Smith, on Leone’s defense team, hasn’t consented to an interview with KCAW until now.
Smith says he’s requested several meetings with Ostebo, but has been denied. He says Ostebo’s attorneys told him the admiral won’t discuss pending litigation.
If the case is sent to court martial, Smith says he could protest Ostebo’s neutrality. Such a move could send the case to a new “convening authority,” which is the person who performs Ostebo’s function in deciding whether to put Leone on trial.
But Smith also said he hasn’t committed to any specific course of legal action.
“I am intimately related and interested in taking that action which will best serve Lt. Leone,” Smith said. “And in this particular case, I believe Adm. Ostebo cannot make a fair and impartial decision.”
The officer who heard evidence in the case back in December recommended Ostebo drop the charges against Leone. But his recommendation is not binding, and Ostebo is free to pursue whatever option he deems suitable.