By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - A U.S. Army general reprimanded for improper relationships with junior female officers but cleared of sexual assault charges will be retired at a reduced rank that strips him of some pension benefits, Army Secretary John McHugh said on Friday.
Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, 51, will be demoted in retirement to lieutenant colonel, the first time in a decade that a retiring general officer has been knocked down by two ranks, the Army said.
"Sinclair displayed a pattern of inappropriate and at times illegal behavior both while serving as a brigadier general and a colonel," McHugh said. "I therefore decided there was sufficient evidence and cause to deny him those benefits."
Sinclair, a veteran of five combat tours, was considered a rising star in the Army before criminal charges two years ago derailed his career and made him the focus of a rare court-martial of a top officer.
A plea deal reached during his trial in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in March resulted in charges of coercive sex acts and indecent conduct against him to be dropped. But he admitted to mistreating a female captain with whom he acknowledged having a three-year extramarital affair.
He was fined $20,000 and spared jail time after pleading guilty to offenses of adultery, maltreatment of a subordinate, engaging in improper relationships, willful disobedience of an order, wrongful use of a government credit card, wrongful possession of pornography while deployed and conduct unbecoming an officer.
Sinclair's defense argued that he was wrongly portrayed as a sex offender by prosecutors who wanted him dismissed by the Army. But critics said his sentence was a failure of military justice that would have a chilling effect on other victims of abuse.
McHugh said Sinclair was entitled under federal law to receive retirement benefits consistent with the last rank at which he performed satisfactory service. The secretary said the law prevented him from dealing a harsher punishment.
Sinclair, a married father of two school-age sons, remains on active duty as a brigadier general until he retires in several weeks, his lawyer said.
"General Sinclair has consistently taken responsibility for his mistakes and agreed to a reduction in retirement benefits," said attorney Richard Scheff. "He is a highly decorated war hero who made great sacrifices for his country, and it’s right that he be permitted to retire honorably."
(The story is refiled to add dropped 'U.S.' to headline; deletes extraneous material from fourth paragraph)
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Dan Grebler and Eric Beech)