Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Owning Up

Two high-profile examples of personal responsibility played out yesterday, thousands of miles apart, and with very different results.

In a military courtroom at Scott AFB, Illinois, Chief Master Sergeant William Gurney pleaded guilty to 13 of 19 sex-related charges against him. Gurney, the former senior enlisted member of Air Force Material Command, is being court-martialed for engaging in improper relationships with 10 female subordinates. Some of the sexual trysts involved Gurney's wife.

Saying he was caught up in a "cycle of sin," Gurney entered the guilty pleas shortly after the court-martial began. Military judge Colonel Thomas Crumbie also dismissed one obstruction charge against the former command chief, allowing prosecutors to move ahead with five other specifications against Gurney.

Interestingly, the defendant did not make a deal with prosecutors before admitting guilt to the 13 charges. Those offenses carry a maximum sentence of 14 1/2 years in prison, and Gurney could receive more jail time for the five additional charges, ranging from indecent conduct, misuse of his position and maltreatment of two female senior airmen. Gurney, a 27-year Air Force veteran, also faces possible dismissal from service, along with the loss of his military pension and other benefits.

In his statement to the judge, Gurney took responsibility for his actions. As Air Force Times reports:

“I failed not only as an airman, but as a husband,” Gurney told Cumbie while describing the details of each of the charges.

Gurney admitted to seven specifications of dereliction of duty stemming from improper relationships with women; one count of improper use of his government e-mail account, computer and cell phone; one count of indecent conduct stemming from a threesome with his wife and another airman; and four counts of adultery.

In his statement, Gurney described the circumstances behind each guilty plea. He admitted to feeling flattered by the attention several of the women showed him. He also alluded to “a lot going on in my life” and said he acted selfishly.

Gurney concluded the descriptions of most guilty pleas with a similar refrain: “My actions were wrong, and I had no legal justification or excuse for them.”

Gurney's actions surprised some observers. Many high-profile Air Force defendants have reached plea deals prior to courts-martial, allowing them to receive less severe punishment and retain their retirement pensions.

Some analysts also suggested that Gurney (a career intelligence specialist) might try a variation of the defense used by Colonel Michael Murphy, the former commander of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency who was court-martialed for practicing military law without a license. The judge in Murphy's case ruled that he could not be punished even if convicted because his former superiors at the White House refused to release classified details of his service, preventing Murphy's attorneys from presenting the "good airman defense." Murphy was allowed to retire form the Air Force last year--pension intact--but as a First Lieutenant, the last grade at which he served honorably.

At least one former military lawyer suggested that Gurney may have acted against the advice of legal counsel. "Not what I would have recommended," said the former JAG officer who noted that Gurney was cleared for a number of sensitive programs during his career. Releasing details of those programs in court testimony might have been difficult, providing a potential foundation for a defense similar to Murphy's. But Gurney elected to plead guilty to most of the counts against him, electing to take his chances with the officer-only jury that will decide his fate.

Two thousand miles from that Air Force courtroom, another high-profile figure elected to take a pass on personal responsibility. We refer to Ted Williams, the former homeless man and radio personality with that golden voice. He catapulted to fame a couple of weeks back, when reporters for the Columbus (OH) Dispatch found him living on the streets. Williams, whose radio career was curtailed by drugs and crime, has since made the rounds of various talk shows and scored a couple of well-paying voice-over gigs, for Kraft Foods and MSNBC.

In Los Angeles for a taping of the "Dr. Phil" show, Williams had a rather noisy reunion with some of the children he had abandoned years ago. And despite claims of being "clean and sober" for the past two years, Mr. Williams quickly picked up his old habits. His daughter reported that Williams consumed a bottle of vodka and several beers before their fight, which ended when police were summoned to his hotel.

Attempting to get Williams back on track, Dr. Phil sent him to a pricey rehab facility. But yesterday, Mr. Williams walked away from treatment--against the advice of his therapists. Williams's immediate destination was unknown, but he seems headed for the same cycle of drinking and drugs that destroyed his life before.

To be sure, Ted Williams won't hit rock bottom right away. The guy has talent, and there are still a few folks who want to cash in on his sudden celebrity. There's no reason Williams won't earn a six-figure income this year, although most of that money will probably be spent on alcohol and drugs. Needless to say, the impending crash won't be pretty. We can only hope it won't be fatal.

Meanwhile, Chief Master Sergeant Gurney is facing the personal ruin that comes with a courts-martial and the end of a military career. But at least Chief Gurney is taking responsibility for his actions, and that's an important first step. He doesn't have a future in the Air Force, but judging from his actions in the courtroom, Gurney has taken a hard look at himself, and is owning up to his misdeeds. Somewhere down the line, there appears to be hope for William Gurney.

Unfortunately, that's more than we can say for Ted Williams.

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