Conduct Unbecoming: One Officer's Struggle with the Texas Air National Guard
For almost every workday over the past ten months, a 35-year-old first lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard has done little more than sit in the Lackland Air Force Base library. His security clearance, accrued through 14 years of steady, strong work, has been revoked. His requests for transfer have been denied.
Since the August day that his commander, Lt. Col. David Penney, called the first lieutenant — who doesn't want his real name used for this story, so we'll call him Ian MacLeod — into his office, MacLeod has been ostracized by co-workers and friends and forced into this room at the expense of both his unit and taxpayers alike.
MacLeod isn't accused of espionage for the Chinese or of gross violations regarding the mishandling of his duties. Indeed, among all the charges levied against MacLeod by his superiors in the 273rd Information Operations Squadron unit, the most justifiable is "misuse of government computers" — a claim that arose only because he sent a handful of personal e-mails from his Gmail account on his work computer, a practice that has, according to protocol, been allowed for TXANG members since 2010.
Instead, MacLeod has been cloistered in the library for purportedly carrying on an inappropriate relationship with a local woman, Candse Ellis, a nursing student and part-time waitress who presents neither security risk nor physical threat to TXANG. After MacLeod's commanders got wind of their brief relationship, they instructed him to cut off all communication with Ellis. They forced his personal life into a hole, and then shattered his career.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UConn Huskies College Football
TicketsThu., Sep. 29, 11:00am
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
"My impression," according to MacLeod's Judge Advocate General (JAG), his military defense attorney, "is that their intention is to inflict as much pain [on MacLeod] as possible in the process." (This airman requested anonymity as well, noting that such identification could threaten his career with the Guard.)
It's difficult to understand why TXANG is concerned with the private lives of MacLeod and Ellis, both of whom are divorced. The Guard declined to comment for this story.
And yet, for the past ten months, MacLeod has stewed. He has no idea what's been happening in Ellis's life. He has no idea what he did to deserve either the charges or the isolation treatment. And his commanders — in an organization only a few years removed from a massive 2009 scandal that saw both women and minorities denied promotions and found that higher-ups had not been reporting double pay — have seemingly done everything possible to keep it that way.
On June 30, nearly a year after being forced into the library, MacLeod will finally be granted voluntary separation and allowed to leave his unit. And now that he's on his way out, MacLeod wants to share his story. As he says, "The purpose of this all was to destroy my career."
MacLeod grew up in Olympia, Washington, the youngest of six in a military family. His father served in the Air Force and the Air National Guard for more than 26 years, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel. But he put no pressure on his children, and MacLeod bounced around for a couple of years after high school, swinging between a Dairy Queen and a tire factory.
Then, in a chat room — this was the late '90s — MacLeod began talking with an airman stationed in Korea. She described her work, her accomplishments and the places she'd visited. MacLeod was hooked. "My dad never even really suggested joining the military," he said. "It had to be on my own terms."
And so it was. Enlistment in the Air Force was initially difficult — for MacLeod, coming from a world of grunge and lethargy, the order was something of a shock. "I had a lot of growing up to do," he notes. However, one commander, Antonio Montoya, recognized where MacLeod fit in. "I'll never forget him — he helped train me to speak up and speak loud, and if I know something's wrong, I need to do something to change it," MacLeod remembers. "He taught me that you can't just keep your mouth shut."
MacLeod outlasted the growing pains. He worked as a database manager — computer and arms logistics. Brainy stuff. He found himself on the island of Diego Garcia when the Afghan bombing campaign began. He remained stationed in the Gulf when the Iraq invasion started. Eventually he headed back to the States to earn a degree from the Academy of Military Science within the Air Force Officer Training School.
The Air Force, meanwhile, was activating the 624th Operations Center, a cyber operations command center out of Lackland. Noticing MacLeod's work, the service asked him to help the program settle. Four months later, MacLeod's wife and daughters joined him in Texas. The move to transfer to TXANG took off.
MacLeod says he had no concerns about transferring to the Guard's 273rd IOS, for which he would soon be working. The effects of the 2009 scandal had apparently dissipated. A few field-grade officers made some comments to MacLeod along the way, but that was it — comments. Nothing substantive. "What's funny about officers is that they never want to be specific," MacLeod says. "They'll say, 'Be careful — just watch your six.' Well, okay. But I don't know what that means."
MacLeod's energy was initially directed elsewhere, at a marriage that was suddenly faltering. He won't delve into specifics, but divorce followed in September 2011, and MacLeod was awarded custody of all three daughters. (The oldest ended up opting to live with her mother.)
But while his marriage was faltering, his career continued its ascension. Promotions followed, and annual evaluations revealed an employee well-regarded by commanders both present and past. "Up to June 2012, I managed to win three quarterly awards and get nominated for another award," MacLeod says, scrolling through the documentation. "I'm thinking my commander likes me, my superior likes me, that things are going well and the sky's again the limit."
He didn't create any fast friends, but he wasn't concerned about that. "I've been successful everywhere else, and I didn't hear of any individual to look out for, nothing specific," he says. "They were very polite over there [in the 273rd] — that's about it. I should have considered that there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm from people in the unit...And in hindsight, I hadn't realized that with one or two key people, I guess I just rubbed them the wrong way."
Ellis was experiencing a simultaneous disintegration of her own. Her 12-year marriage to Brady Ellis, an Army sergeant based in San Antonio, was imploding in a fit of vitriol and epithets. Brady Ellis did not return a request for comment from the Houston Press.
"I had to literally only correspond through text or e-mail, when he would call me a cunt, call me a whore," remembers Ellis, who had had four young children with Brady by the time the marriage fell apart in mid-2012. Brady would call, and Ellis would text back. He'd leave a voice-mail, and she'd e-mail. He finally got the message. All the while the insults kept flying, direct and detailed, lodged in her phone for perpetuity. The October divorce date couldn't come swiftly enough.
And then, weeks into their separation, Brady sent a text that was a bit different. "As far as I'm concerned," he wrote to Ellis, "we aren't married anymore."
A few days later, Ellis headed to her job as a server at an Egg & I restaurant in San Antonio. MacLeod walked in the door. Ellis remembered his name tag from a few weeks before, when MacLeod and his father had sat in her section. "I got hit on all the time at work, and I always ignored it," Ellis said. "But [Ian] made such an impression that I told him, 'The next time you come back in, ask for my section.'"
So MacLeod did as she instructed. Two young daughters in tow, he sat in her section.
That night, MacLeod messaged her on Facebook. Days later, they were e-mailing. Not long after, they were meeting. As Ellis filed for divorce in July, her relationship with MacLeod began to blossom.
Then, not two months after MacLeod first messaged her, he stopped. She'd text him and hear nothing back. She'd call him and hear only a voice mail. There was no communication. There was no reason. Only silence.
Four days after MacLeod went quiet, Brady made a confession to his wife.
"I'm done spying on you," he wrote her via text, admitting he had hacked her e-mail. "[Y]ou chose a[n e-mail] password that I guessed on the first try. I'm sure it is frustrating but I did what I had to do and don't forget I am an intel analyst. That's what I do...
"You left yourself wide open," he continued. "It took no skill or special knowlegde [sic]. I just followed the pattern you use in your passwords." And then, as a kicker: "Stay away from [Ian MacLeod]. [I]f I ever catch wind of you talking to [Ian] he will go down. My battalion commander wants him to lose his clearance and his job."
Brady had forwarded the e-mails, the text of which both Candse Ellis and MacLeod claim Brady changed, to his commander. "He made me out to be a complete whore," Ellis said. "When he told me what he sent, I was just floored — he made it sound like I was a happily married woman. He put some talk in there that no woman should [say]. Disgusting. Disgusting."
After Brady's Army commander notified MacLeod's TXANG superiors, Penney brought MacLeod into his office. Although Penney had noted in MacLeod's June evaluation that the first lieutenant was a "[t]ruly stellar officer" and was "[s]elected as one of the group's finest!" Penney informed him that an investigation was being opened into certain allegations about his relationship with Ellis. Moreover, Penney told MacLeod that he had placed a No-Contact Order on the first lieutenant, barring MacLeod from speaking with the woman he had begun seeing. MacLeod couldn't even let her know he'd no longer be contacting her.
After Penney told him about the order, MacLeod grew quiet, trying to absorb the news. He asked to see the evidence that had led to the investigation, but Penney denied his request. MacLeod still had no idea that Brady had hacked Candse's e-mails or that Brady had forwarded the compromised e-mails to his superiors, who then sent them along to Penney.
MacLeod knew only that there were "allegations" surrounding his relationship with Ellis. But he had no idea what those charges contained.
"Allegations of what?" MacLeod said. "That she and I were dating each other? There's nothing illegal about that — the Air Guard doesn't have a clause on adultery...If you tell two single individuals you can't talk to each other, and there's no way to tie that into the mission, why on earth, Col. Penney, would you care about whether or not Candse and I talked to each other?"
After Brady owned up to his activities, Candse quickly sent an e-mail about the text conversations to both Penney and Maj. Sonya Batchelor, the prosecuting JAG. Tabulating and tagging all her conversations with Brady had finally paid off.
Days passed and Ellis waited. However, she never received a response from MacLeod's superiors. And none of the text messages — the ones in which Brady spelled out how he had hacked into Ellis's e-mails — ever made it into the final investigative documents.
But e-mails obtained from both Penney and Batchelor show that they both not only had received Ellis's e-mails, but sought advice from Maj. Kristy Leasman, another member of the 273rd. As Batchelor wrote on August 17, a week after Ellis's initial e-mail, "Mrs. Ellis apparently has been busy e-mailing me."
(Brady Ellis didn't believe anything would come of MacLeod's investigation: "Tomorrow I will stop everything," he wrote to Candse Ellis in early August. "Hell if you can stop the prosecution of a man that has been investigated for the last 5 months with all kinds of evidence I should be able to stop a stupid little deal [with] your fuck buddy.")
Meanwhile, MacLeod idled. He waited for the air to clear, waited for it to be shown that the allegations were nothing but a mistake. Ten days into his waiting, he saw his clearance revoked. A few weeks later, he learned that Capt. Jesse Allen had been tabbed to lead the Command Directed Investigation (CDI).
Allen and MacLeod met on September 19. Despite CDI guidelines that discourage leading questioning, Allen ran through a list of personal questions with MacLeod that were markedly specific. Things about MacLeod's private life. Things about MacLeod's sex life. "What do you do when you meet?" Allen asked, looking into the times MacLeod saw Ellis. Then: "Have you ever been intimate with Candse Ellis?" Just like Penney, Allen refused to present any evidence against MacLeod, who still had no idea what precisely had prompted this line of inquiry.
Refusing to let the Guard into this part of his life, MacLeod cited Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which allowed him to remain silent. Such a decision, he says, would later give his superiors further ammunition to dislodge him.
"I had faith in my commanding officer...but [Penney] is an asshole," MacLeod says. "And then they are asking about my relationship with Candse. [But] it's not the Guard's business...They have no business in being relationship police."
The investigation was completed shortly after, and the report was delivered to Penney on October 10. The CDI found that MacLeod was guilty of carrying on an "inappropriate relationship...that was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the Texas National Guard." However, it's not simply that Candse and Brady Ellis's relationship was actually, if not legally, over — it's also that adultery isn't even prohibited by the Texas Code of Military Justice, to which MacLeod was subject.
Furthermore, Brady wasn't even a member of the same branch of the military as MacLeod.
"They argued it was prejudicial to good order and discipline — that it interfered with unit functioning," said the airman representing MacLeod. "They said it was affecting [Brady] in a negative way. Our argument was if the Texas Air National Guard gets involved every time Army or Navy or the Air Force is upset, where will it stop? If this is the measure, you can argue anything is connected."
Indeed, the CDI, the stack of findings on which MacLeod's entire curtailment is based, is full of holes. According to MacLeod's JAG, Allen said he never received the messages that Ellis had forwarded to Batchelor and Penney. As such, they're not included in the final package, and the CDI found that "[t]here is no evidence that the e-mails were altered and these e-mails were determined to be credible."
Likewise, in the November 17 memo summarizing the findings, Penney noted that the investigation found MacLeod guilty of "improperly us[ing] [his] government computer for personal use to engage in an inappropriate relationship," pointing to a few e-mails MacLeod sent Ellis from work. But again, such e-mailing is, within reason, perfectly acceptable for servicemen.
But that's not all. Leasman stated in an affidavit included in the CDI that Ellis "may have moved in with Lt [MacLeod], which would have violated [MacLeod's] responsibility to report cohabitation." But there is no evidence that the two ever lived together. Leasman also somehow claimed that "a real situation for blackmail was possible" in the relationship between MacLeod and Ellis, noting that Ellis "could use that relationship to manipulate [MacLeod]. She could easily say that she would tell everyone what they did together if he did not do what she wanted."
As the CDI noted, MacLeod was being punished "due to a real situation of blackmail, cohabitation and...loss of trustworthiness."
(In a further mark against the CDI's integrity, and despite her inclusion as a witness, Leasman was appointed as Allen's "administrative assistan[t]," which, according to MacLeod's JAG, "taints the reliability of the entire investigation".)
On November 17, Penney called MacLeod into his office to inform him of his decision. According to the November 17 memo, Penney noted that he would "recommend to the Texas Adjutant General (TAG) that [MacLeod's] current [Active Guard Reserve] tour be involuntarily curtailed." MacLeod's career would be all but over.
MacLeod never received any intermediate disciplinary actions — no reprimands, no notes, no warnings. As MacLeod's father, the 26-year veteran, wrote, "I never had, or saw, a superior officer work actively to get rid of a subordinate without following the proper procedures, which always included extensive counseling for the subordinate."
"[Penney] sets up a meeting and tells me he's going to recommend that I get fired from my job," MacLeod said. As far as Penney was concerned, the matter was closed. MacLeod asked why Penney had come to his decision. "He wouldn't tell me why," MacLeod says. "He would just say, 'Because that's what I'm going to do.'"
With his clearance still revoked, MacLeod, consigned to the base library, set to work on a thesis while trying to figure out how he could appeal his involuntary curtailment. Come December 1, e-mails with his superiors began going unanswered, further stranding him.
His defense JAG helped him begin compiling everything they'd need to present his best case. Divorce papers showing previous legal rulings in his favor. Lists of Air National Guard awards. The defense JAG even reached out to Ellis to procure a separate statement in which she noted, "Lt Col Penney never responded to my e-mails."
"[MacLeod] is unlike any other client I've had," said MacLeod's defense JAG. "You're usually dealing with people having a hard time being a member of the military, [but] this guy is stellar. He has everything tabbed and organized. I've been nothing but impressed with him."
As an added measure, the defense JAG made sure to request additional notification if the charges against MacLeod shifted. "I put in our letter, 'Please let us know about changes to the package,' but of course we never heard anything for months and months and months," said the airman. A meeting with Col. Susan Dickens, the group commander, revealed that the charges against him stemmed from "trust issues," but, as before, uncertainties remained.
After weeks of further silence, MacLeod and his defense JAG asked the Inspector General to look into the matter, and the IG's office opened an initial investigation in early February. (The IG's office was accused of conflicts of interest in TXANG's corruption and gender-discrimination probe four years ago.) On March 21, seven months into his holding pattern, MacLeod received a memo back from the IG: "The research found the issues submitted to the Texas Military Forces Office of the Inspector General are not matters appropriate for resolution through the IG Complaints Resolution System."
Despite the response, MacLeod said he learned from his IG contact that the decision on curtailment seemed to have shifted from one based on the claim of an "inappropriate relationship" to one that relied on the non-responses he offered in his interview with Allen. "Col. David Escobedo [of the IG's office] said it's because of how I didn't answer the questions," MacLeod says.
But on March 20, when MacLeod met with Col. John Kane, Kane said the CDI interview had played no role in claims of a loss of trust. "He said it has nothing to do with the whole untrustworthiness thing," MacLeod remembers. "And then I ask what did happen, and the response is just, 'Well, I dunno...I'm sorry we couldn't fire you faster.'"
A memo filed April 12 by the defense JAG revealed that the issue of trustworthiness had indeed existed prior to the initial investigation. "[T]he vague accusation of lack of trustworthiness was confirmed in 3 Apr[il 20]13 telephone conversation with Captain Jesse Allen...Captain Allen said that when he met with Colonel Dickens...after being appointed the investigating officer, Colonel Dickens said to him that the investigation was about 'trust.'"
And yet MacLeod had never lied. MacLeod had never misled. He refused to answer the pointed questions in the interview — but he had the right to do that. With the IG's decision, however, his final option was exhausted. The Texas Air National Guard will not simply have wasted 11 months of his life, but, by MacLeod's calculations, will have cost taxpayers a minimum of $78,000, and likely more, by keeping him aboard.
All of this the result of evidence that was, from the very beginning, compromised. As the April 12 memo sums: "It is clear that Lt. Col. Batchelor received the exculpatory evidence in question on 9 Aug 12. The question is what happened to that evidence and why was it not provided to Captain Allen."
It's a warm Tuesday afternoon just outside San Antonio. Ian MacLeod is sitting in a coffeeshop, relaxed in a T-shirt and jeans — he's left the library, realizing that no amount of reporting for duty on the base will persuade his superiors to let him stay in the Guard. He's reading an e-mail from Leasman, one of the individuals he believes was looking for any excuse to fire him. "There has been no veering regarding the decision made in your case," Leasman wrote. "The decision to curtail is based on the findings in the CDI, and your multiple responses and submissions."
No veering. Nothing about the transition from citing his relationship as the reason for the curtailment to claiming a loss of trust as the reason. MacLeod's laugh is laced with as much sarcasm as his position will allow.
He will have lived in this rabbit hole for 11 months. A separation application submitted April 8 was finally approved — but only after Penney and Leasman both made sure to note it was considered "due to conduct unbecoming of an officer."
Even then, his separation date keeps getting pushed back, from May 1 to May 15 to May 30. Last week, MacLeod learned that it had been postponed again, to June 30. Eleven months in, MacLeod will finally receive an honorable discharge and a voluntary separation from the Texas Air National Guard. He can leave the library for good.
But the first lieutenant still doesn't know where he'll find a job. His work in the military has been all but derailed. He has to find employment, because he's raising a pair of daughters on his own.
MacLeod takes a momentary break from rereading the e-mails for the 100th time to delve into an area that's as painful to revisit as any. "For all I know, Candse could be seeing somebody else at this point," he says, forcing a smile. "Maybe one day our paths will cross." And he looks past the computer screen, just for a moment, before returning to the documents he's collated since this all began. He starts thumbing through the notes in front of him, rather than plugging at the emotions that spurred all this last June.
Ellis, though — she can't keep it buried. She said she would call a reporter to discuss her feelings. But even though she's nearly a year removed from when this all began, she can't.
And so she texts. "I was emotionally distraught when this all occurred last August," she writes. "[Ian] is a very special guy...He deserves better than this. He deserves to have a command that supports him. He did nothing wrong. I only want what is best for him. I hope he doesn't hold meeting me against [me].
"When this is done, I would love to hear from him and know how it all turns out," she continues. "I'd like to hear about his life and if possible get to know him again. He is a wonderful human being...I miss him every day. "
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.