Former Admiral’s $500,000 retirement job was a bribe, prosecutors say

Once the Navy's No. 2-ranking sailor, Admiral Robert Burke is accused of steering training contracts toward a company that gave him a half-million dollar salary when he retired.
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Retired Adm. Robert Burke, who served as the vice chief of naval operations, faces federal bribery charges over a $500,00-per-year post-retirement job. US Navy photo.

A former Admiral who was once the Navy’s No. 2-ranking sailor and served as one of NATO’s most senior commanders was arrested Friday on federal bribery charges. According to a federal indictment, retired four-star Admiral Robert Burke, 62, took a job just months after retiring that paid him $500,000 a year plus significant stock options with a company that he had steered single-source training contracts to as a senior Navy admiral.

Burke, prosecutors say, met with officials of a company seeking a training contract with the Navy and agreed to steer a “triple digit million”-dollar deal towards them. That contract never arrived, prosecutors say, but Burke gave “false and misleading” statements to Navy officials who looked into the deal about his relationship with the company and on the post-retirement job he eventually took with the company.

Burke is one of the most senior military leaders in recent history to face criminal charges stemming from their military positions. As a four-star admiral, Burke was the 40th vice chief of naval operations — the service’s second-highest ranking officer — from June 2019 until June 2020. He finished his career as the commander of Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, a position second only to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He concurrently served as the commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa, overseeing waters bordering the coasts of Europe and Africa, including the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas.

According to federal prosecutors, Burke conspired with two business executives, Yongchul “Charlie” Kim and Meghan Messenger who were co-CEOs of an unnamed company that provided a workforce training pilot program. The company had a minor training contract with the Navy from August 2018 through July 2019 which the Navy canceled in late 2019. As part of military contracting rules, the Navy directed the two executives not to contact Burke.

But Kim and Messenger allegedly met with Burke in Washington, D.C., in July 2021 in an effort to find more business with the Navy.

At the meeting, prosecutors say, the three “allegedly agreed that Burke would use his position as a Navy Admiral to steer a sole-source contract” to the pair’s company “in exchange for future employment at the company.”

Burke, prosecutors say, also agreed to influence “other Navy officers” to award a much larger training contract to the firm that would be worth “triple digit millions.” 

In December 2021, while Burke was one of the highest-ranking combat commanders in NATO, allegedly ordered his staff to award the company a $355,000 contract to train personnel under Burke’s command in Italy and Spain, which the company carried out in early 2022.

But any big prize the company was seeking — a nine-digit contract or other major work with the Navy — never materialized for the firm. Meanwhile Burke, say prosecutors, “made several false and misleading statements to the Navy” including a claim that he had not discussed a post-retirement job with the company until months after the small contract was awarded. 

Burke retired in the summer of 2022. By October, he had taken a position at the company with a starting salary of $500,000 and a grant of 100,000 stock options. 

Burke, Kim, and Messenger are each charged with conspiracy to commit bribery. Burke is also charged with performing acts affecting a personal financial interest and concealing material facts from the United States. If convicted, Burke faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, and Kim and Messenger each face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Submarine commander to Pentagon leader

A native of Portage, Michigan, according to a Navy bio, Burke studied electrical engineering at Western Michigan University and the University of Central Florida. He commanded USS Hampton (SSN 767) in Norfolk, Virginia, and was commodore of Submarine Development Squadron (DEVRON) 12 in Groton, Connecticut.

His staff assignments include tours as an instructor and director for the Electrical Engineering Division at Naval Nuclear Power School, junior board member on the Pacific Fleet Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board, submarine officer community manager/nuclear officer program manager; and director, Joint and Fleet Operations, U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

Besides his career-capping roles as vice CNO and with NATO, Burke’s senior commands included deputy commander, U.S. 6th Fleet; director of operations, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa; commander, Submarine Group 8 and as the Navy’s 58th chief of naval personnel.

His awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (five awards) and various campaign and unit awards. Naval Submarine League recognized Burke with the Jack Darby Award for Leadership in 2004. Burke also received the Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership in 2005.  He has been an Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia since 2020.

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