LOS ANGELES -- In what some military attorneys and officers say is an unusual move, the U.S. Navy has removed a disciplinary letter from the file of an officer who complained of unfair treatment by an attorney who is now waging a celebrated legal battle against the Navy.
Cmdr. James E. Taylor said the letter, placed in his file in 1984 after he was found to have passed confidential information to a civilian contractor, was removed on the grounds that his commanding officer "did not receive objective counsel" from former civilian Navy attorney Stephen Stokwitz.
Stokwitz was fired as general counsel at the Naval Ocean Systems Center (NOSC) in San Diego in October 1984, after two employes he had reprimanded accused him of drug use and travel voucher fraud. Documents uncovered in his $1 million suit against several Navy employes show that coworkers were making minute-by-minute accounts of his telephone conversations and sex life at a time when the Navy insisted he was not under investigation.
His case has sparked federal legislation proposing new protections for attorneys and other government specialists.
Retired Navy captain James Patton, the NOSC commander who originally ordered the "punitive letter of admonition" placed in Taylor's file, reacted sharply to the news that he was not consulted about removal of the letter. "That's remarkable," he said.
Patton said Taylor pleaded guilty to violating a written order against sharing confidential information from the research center with civilians who could use it for financial gain. An admiral, he said, confirmed the action at the time. "We had him dead to rights."
Patton said it was highly unusual for the Navy to reverse such action without checking with the officer who made the original ruling. "I find it very difficult to believe," he said.
He rejected any suggestion that Stokwitz might have unfairly influenced him in his decision. He said in Taylor's case, and in the case of two other officers accused of a conflict of interest, Stokwitz had persuaded him to take a more moderate course after he had originally resolved to take stronger action "and make an example of them."
Stokwitz, now in private law practice in San Diego, said he thinks the Navy acted in an attempt to further taint any action he may have taken in the months shortly before his firing and thus strengthen its case in court.
A Navy spokeswoman said she had no immediate information on the Taylor case.