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Sestak's use of rank violates military's code of ethics

| Thursday, March 26, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Democrat Joe Sestak talks to supporters at Carol & Dave's Roadhouse in Ligonier on March 23, 2015 during a stop on a symbolic walking tour across Pennsylvania on the first anniversary of Obamacare. Sestak is running for U.S. Senate in 2016.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Democrat Joe Sestak talks to supporters at Carol & Dave's Roadhouse in Ligonier on March 23, 2015 during a stop on a symbolic walking tour across Pennsylvania on the first anniversary of Obamacare. Sestak is running for U.S. Senate in 2016.
Democrat Joe Sestak, a U.S. Senate candidate, talks to supporters at Carol & Dave's Roadhouse in Ligonier on March 23, 2015 during a stop on a symbolic walking tour across Pennsylvania. He planned to stop in Pittsburgh and Coraopolis at the end of the week.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Democrat Joe Sestak, a U.S. Senate candidate, talks to supporters at Carol & Dave's Roadhouse in Ligonier on March 23, 2015 during a stop on a symbolic walking tour across Pennsylvania. He planned to stop in Pittsburgh and Coraopolis at the end of the week.

Joe Sestak retired from the Navy in 2005, but he still prefers the title “Admiral” in his campaign literature.

And that could be a problem, experts say.

Sestak's website emphasizes his military career, pointing out that he served 31 years in the Navy. But in many sections, it refers to him as “Admiral Sestak,” as do his campaign news releases.

Department of Defense ethics guidelines say retirees not on active duty can mention their military rank or service affiliation when campaigning for federal office but must clearly indicate their retired or reserve status. The rules were designed to prevent any implication of official endorsement or approval of military members' participation in political activity.

Neither the Navy nor the Pentagon would discuss Sestak's campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, who beat him by 2 percentage points in 2010.

At an event in Latrobe on Tuesday, titled “Admiral Sestak for Senior Citizens and People with Alzheimer's Disease,” Sestak refused to address questions about why his campaign literature doesn't prominently indicate he retired as a two-star rear admiral.

“I don't know what you are talking about,” said Sestak, who rose to the rank of three-star admiral but wasn't in that position long enough to retire as such. He said he could not answer the question and referred it to campaign spokeswoman Danielle Lynch, who refused comment.

Reminded of the Pentagon's military code of ethics regarding the use of titles, Sestak said: “Mmmm. Send us something on that, would you?”

Sestak's website states he is walking “across Pennsylvania.” But he is being driven between campaign events. He plans stops in Pittsburgh and Coraopolis on Thursday and Friday.

As a general rule, retired service members can use their military titles as a form of address — similar to conventional titles such as Mr., Mrs., and so on — but cannot if it “gives the appearance of sponsorship, sanction, endorsement, or approval” by the Defense Department, said Zachary Spilman, a civilian attorney in Massachusetts who specializes in military justice issues.

The department's Directive 1344.10 addressing political activity “requires clear indication of retired or reserve status in all campaign literature,” Spilman said. “Appearances are just as important as reality when it comes to ethics.”

Retired Army Gen. Tony Cucolo, a former commandant of the Army War College in Carlisle, believes retired military officers make good public servants “because their natural inclination is to the serve the nation.”

“But you cannot run using your military title, and a true professional soldier would not do that,” Cucolo said.

Sestak was President Clinton's director for defense policy on the National Security Council and the first director of the Navy's Deep Blue anti-terrorism unit after 9/11.

Jon Soltz, chairman of the VoteVets.org political action committee and a two-tour Iraq War veteran, endorsed Sestak last month. He understands Sestak's strategy to emphasize his military background.

“Joe has a lifetime of experience of serving our country,” Soltz said. “That's a good record to earn voters' trust.”

Yet running for office as a veteran doesn't mean a slam-dunk win, Soltz and others said.

“Many veterans come to the game at a disadvantage, having spent their time serving their country and not building up a network of fundraisers to support their candidacy,” Soltzsaid. Without sufficient money, “they can't tell their story.”

Former Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Bucks County Democrat, was a retired captain with the Army's 82nd Airborne who served in Iraq. Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress (2007-2011), said he never used any part of his military uniform or his retired rank when campaigning.

“There are some great advantages when you get to office, because you have first-hand experience with two of the biggest parts of the taxpayers budget, military spending and Veterans Affairs,” Murphy said. “To a former member of the military, a budget is a moral document.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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