Three months ago, Stephen Stokwitz was an energetic government attorney with a stack of awards and commendations, a new promotion and the satisfaction that his work for a key Navy research center was making his career-military father proud.
Today, Stokwitz, 33, is out of work, $5,000 in debt and hindered in his search for a new job by a secret Navy report he has been told he may not see. Navy officials have declined to comment.
That Stokwitz could be fired in minutes for no specific reason from a $52,500-a-year, GS15 job as general counsel of the Navy Ocean Systems Center illustrates a fact of life affecting up to 17,000 federal attorneys who work under what is called "excepted service." They may be hired without passing government examinations but cannot appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if dismissed.
"There are no regulations that protect him at all," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John R. Neece, who successfully argued Friday against Stokwitz's request for an immediate federal court order restoring his job. U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson said that the Navy's behavior seems "strange" and that Stokwitz might have a chance to collect substantial damages in a future trial, but that no immediate action was due an "excepted service" employe.
Stokwitz said Navy investigators have asked two of his female friends about their sex lives, suggested to other friends that he has a drug habit and examined his tax return and several love letters confiscated from his desk.
"It is Franz Kafka's 'The Trial,' " said Stokwitz, referring to the novel of a man powerless against unnamed charges. He is close to losing his house and has not been sleeping well. "I can't afford to go to a psychiatrist," he said, "but I probably need one."
Despite the suddenness of its action against an employe who on July 10 received its award for exemplary achievement, the Naval Ocean Systems Center and the Pentagon have declined to comment. Joel Meriwether, public affairs officer for the 3,000-employe research center, said it is Navy policy not to comment on matters in litigation.
Stokwitz said he became a Navy civilian lawyer seven years ago to combine his interest in law with his love of the military. He had been graduated from Virginia Military Institute before taking his law degree at the Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C. His father had served 30 years as an Army warrant officer.
Stokwitz soon accumulated complimentary letters from Navy clients and superiors on his "honesty and agressiveness," "determination and patience" and "aggressive, yet down-to-earth approach to difficult situations." On July 10 the center's commander, Capt. James M. Patton, gave him the highest evaluation rating and recommended him for promotion to GS15.
In the course of his work, Stokwitz said, he had "made enemies." He had criticized Navy investigators in San Diego for mistakes, reprimanded a civilian attorney who worked for him and reduced a raise his sectretary expected because she had lost an important file. But he said he was stunned Sept. 4 when, a few days after the routine transfer of Patton, he was called into the office of the new commander, Capt. F.M. Pestorius, to hear some "bad news."
His boss in Washington, Naval Supply Systems Command counsel William G. Rae, was there to tell him he was being investigated for violation of federal standards of conduct. He was given five minutes to gather personal effects from his office. A security officer escorted him to his car, scraped the government decal off his car and sent him home.
For more than two weeks, while on paid administrative leave, Stokwitz tried in vain to find out what was happening. In the meantime, Navy investigators were visiting several of his friends.
According to a declaration filed with Stokwitz's attorney, Thomas G. Gilmore, two investigators on Sept. 17 asked one female co-worker several questions, including whether she had had sexual relations with Stokwitz in his office, whether she was aware that he was addicted to drugs and whether she knew that Stokwitz had told others about her sexual prowess.
The woman told Stokwitz's lawyers that she denied or refused to answer the questions and told the investigators that her good opinion of Stokwitz was backed up by Patton. This, one investigator told her, was because Stokwitz "had something on Patton."
On Sept. 20, two investigators interviewed Stokwitz and for the first time told him of the allegation against him. A written statement of charges included illegal drug use, using the office telephone for personal calls and filing a false travel claim. Stokwitz said they also mentioned allegations of sexual misconduct, malicious prosecution, falsification of time cards and blackmail. He denied the charges.
During the next three weeks, investigators visited a law school friend of Stokwitz's in Philadelphia and a former federal attorney colleague in Washington to ask if calls they received from Stokwitz had been business or personal. According to a declaration from the Washington attorney, the investigator characterized the charges as petty and caused by "personality differences" in Stokwitz's office.
Investigators also questioned Anthy Jean Dunlap, 35, a secretary at the center. In a sexual harassment complaint filed with the Navy as a result of that interview, Dunlap said she was pressured not to have an attorney present and then asked questions about her divorce, when her relationship with Stokwitz became "more than just friends" and about phrases in some of her letters to Stokwitz found in his desk.
Dunlap said she was "shocked and outraged" by the investigation and by the "explicit sexual overtones" of the questions from Naval Investigative Service agent James Chambers.
On Oct. 1, Stokwitz said, he was told that the investigation had closed with no charges against him. But at a Washington meeting on Oct. 9, Stokwitz said his superiors told him that they still had four "concerns:" making personal telephone calls, coercing loans from subordinates, copying a resume on a government copier and travel-claim fraud. Although he denied them all, Rae told him by telephone the next day that his services were "no longer required," Stokwitz said.
Although promised that the investigation would not appear on his record, Stokwitz said, an executive recruiter checking his resume was told of the charges by a Navy source and left Stockwitz a message that the new job was "dead." California unemployment compensation officials were told of the charges but ruled that the Navy had insufficient evidence and granted Stokwitz benefits.
According to Gilmore, Stokwitz's attorney, courts have ruled that excepted service employes have a right to a hearing to clear their name if they have been "stigmatized" by their dismissal. Neece argued this only protects employes from unfavorable public statements at the time of the dismissal. The government, he said, has to have the right to conduct investigations, even if investigators questions sometime start harmful rumors.
Forced to wait months for his day in court, Stokwitz said, "The government has succeeded in doing what it set out to do. I'll be broken financially. My house will be gone; everything will be gone."
He suspects that disgruntled former subordinates are the cause of his problems, but word of the charges has spread so far that he has tired of defending himself. "I have become a recluse," he said, sitting at home, adding that he wonders how "3,000 people could come to believe that I'm guilty." CAPTION: Picture, Stokwitz is out of work, $5,000 in debt and hindered in search for a new job. AP