NEWPORT — The Office of Naval Inspector General has cleared former Naval War College president Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley of most of the allegations of misconduct claimed to have occurred after he took command of the 136-year-old school in July 2016, The Providence Journal has learned.

Harley, in one of a series of interviews with the The Journal, called the findings “deeply gratifying.” He said many of the most sensational allegations — “offers of 'free hugs' and games of Twister in his office” — reflected a misunderstanding of his sense of humor, which he describes as “quirky,” but which he says was intended to ease tensions in what can be a stressful environment.

The allegations, reported last year by the Associated Press, prompted a national controversy that led to Harley leaving the college presidency after almost three years in office.

Two allegations have been referred without judgment to other branches of the Navy. Harley has contested the remaining ones.

The findings are contained in a 148-page “Tentative Report of Investigation,” issued on Dec. 23. A copy of the report, which is labeled “unclassified,” was independently obtained by The Journal.

The investigation was administrative in nature, not criminal, and no type of sanction is recommended in the Tentative Report, which has been forwarded to the Department of Defense and the Chief of Naval Operations for their review and recommendations, if any. That process could take weeks or months, as could the Inspector General's finalization of its report.

The allegations first publicly surfaced in a June 7 Associated Press story that cited information from “multiple current and former college employees,” none of them named in the article, who claimed Harley “spent excessively, abused his hiring authority and otherwise behaved inappropriately, including keeping a margarita-making machine in his office.”

Controversy embroiled Harley and days after the story was published, he left the college presidency.

Adm. John M. Richardson, then the service's Chief of Naval Operations, said he removed Harley, telling the AP in another story that although an investigation was not concluded “there was just enough actionable information at that point that I made the decision that I did.” Attempts this week and last to reach Richardson, now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, were unsuccessful.

Harley disputes Richardson's description, telling The Journal he “stepped down because of the distraction caused by a scurrilous AP article.” After more than 37 years of service, Harley, 59, retired from the Navy honorably and with full benefits in December. He criticizes the investigation process, saying it placed him in a position of “guilty until proven innocent.”

The controversy has roots early in Harley's presidency, when the two-star admiral began changes he said were designed to transform the venerable institution into a modern university that would more closely resemble a top private or state school, such as Brown or the University of Rhode Island.

Among the changes was raising salaries for women faculty, who were receiving less pay than men for identical work, an inequity that Harley told The Journal was “immoral, if not illegal.”

According to Harley, “many women were receiving 12% less than their male counterparts for the exact same work. When I asked why we were paying women professors less, the answer I got was that 'women take less money, which leaves more money for other things.' “

Other measures included creation of a College of Leadership and Ethics at the Newport school, increasing the racial diversity of faculty and staff, and raising salaries for older professors hired long ago. These professors for years had received only cost-of-living increases, which left them with salaries lower than more recently hired professors who joined the faculty at more modern rates.

“Ageism” is how Harley described those salary inequities.

The changes, outlined in a four-year strategic plan, received support from the Navy and many Naval War College faculty and employees. But others objected, apparently including what the AP described as “a small group of longtime college employees filed an anonymous complaint about Harley in April 2018 with the Navy's office of the inspector general.”

Asked to react to the Dec. 23 Tentative Report, Harley told The Journal:

“It is deeply gratifying that the major allegations against me were unsubstantiated or not investigated. Being exonerated of the serious allegations takes a heavy burden from my shoulders. I am also glad the IG made no recommendations for punishment and that I can now move on.

“This has been a stressful time for my family, and I am grateful to the colleagues and friends who stood by my side during this difficult period.”

Asked to respond to the Tentative Report's findings, Cmdr. Gary Ross, public affairs officer for the Naval War College, said “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation.”

In interviews with The Journal, Naval War College Professors Sarah C.M. Paine and Bruce A. Elleman criticized Harley's treatment by the Navy and his portrayal in the media. Before speaking, each emphasized they were expressing their personal opinions, not necessarily those of the Navy, the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.

Paine, the William S. Sims University Professor of History and Grand Strategy, has taught at the U.S. Naval War College since 2000 and holds a master's degree from Middlebury College and a doctoral degree from Columbia. Elleman, currently the William V. Pratt Professor of International History, also has been at the Naval War College for two decades. He holds a master's degree from the London School of Economics and a doctorate from Columbia.

Harley, Paine said, “was trying to set high standards. He tried to make a difference.”

One difference, Paine and Elleman said, was increasing the salaries of “civilian” professors such as themselves, who did not serve in the military but hold doctoral degrees and have been professionally published, so that the Naval War College would be more competitive with leading civilian universities.

Salaries of female faculty members were also matched to their male counterparts. Increased salaries would also potentially appeal to professors at other institutions who might want to join the Naval War College faculty.

The Naval War College is accredited as a master's degree-conferring school by the New England Commission of Higher Education, which assesses colleges and universities in the six New England states and “is recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as a reliable authority on the quality of education for the institutions it accredits,” according to the NECHE site.

Elleman said Harley was concerned that continuing accreditation could be jeopardized by the fact that some of the War College's “military” professors – retired service people who are also on the faculty – do not hold so-called terminal degrees, typically doctorates. In Harley's changes, some would be required to earn such degrees, requiring additional schooling some did not want to pursue, Elleman said.

The situation was compounded, Elleman said, by what he described as a “double-dipping” salary structure. Under the Fiscal 2000 defense authorization act, signed into law in October 2000 by President Bill Clinton, retired military officers can collect their retirement and also a salary at the Naval War College.

“Currently, over 100 NWC faculty without Ph.D.s or other terminal degree are earning well over $200,000 per year, and some over $250,000 a year,” Elleman told The Journal. “The ex-military bureaucracy does not support the financial needs of the civilian professors. Harley was fixing that.

“He gave salary increases to civilian professors. This is the main problem Harley was trying to solve. This is why, in my opinion, he was given a headshot.”

Elleman said that five or six years ago at the Naval War College, “the lowest full professor salary was $118,000. Now it is about $144,000. That $26,000 increase in five to six years is partly cost-of-living increases, which are automatic, but partly due to Harley. A full professor at Brown makes $158,000 for a nine-month appointment and we are on 12-month appointments; prorated at 12 months, Brown would be $210,000.”

According to the Tentative Report, the Office of Naval Inspector General began its investigation “after receiving an anonymous complaint on April 22, 2018, that specified multiple allegations of misconduct” by Harley. Eventually, after additional claims, the Inspector General identified 21 allegations.

Two allegations involving management of the college budget were determined to “be under the purview of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Manpower and Reserve Affairs (ASN/M&RA) and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Financial Management and Comptroller (ASN/FM&C),” and were referred to those agencies.

“That means that the IG staff is does not have the technical expertise or background to make decisions as to whether or not this was a violation,” Harley's Navy lawyer, Capt. Andrew House, told The Journal.

Harley maintains that the “checks and balances that exist in the government comptroller system” would have made budget mismanagement “not really possible… claims of overspending are also not possible, because additional funding, if required, has to be coordinated and approved by our chain of command.” The Navy budgetary divisions have not reported on their reviews.

Twelve allegations were determined to be “unsubstantiated.” Seven were substantiated.

Among the 12 unsubstantiated allegations were claims that Harley “improperly directed the use of government funds for trips and lectures to the NWC” by a person whose name was redacted in the Tentative Report; “improperly solicited and accepted a $443.64 gift from the Naval War College Foundation,” or NWCF; and “showed undue favoritism towards .”

Also unsubstantiated were allegations that Harley “abused his authority as President, NWC, when he directed the appointment without competition of “, “improperly authorized to attend meetings on behalf of the NWC”; and “improperly solicited gifts from foreign governments in violation of” a Defense Department Directive.

The seven substantiated findings, which Harley has contested, include that he “improperly endorsed the NWCF and encouraged NWC students to become members of the NWCF”; “improperly used his non-Government email for official Government business”; and “failed to report a potential compromise of classified information incorporated into an unclassified dissertation/blog posting.”

Also, that Harley “wrongfully served and served alcohol on the NWC campus without proper authorization.” This related to the “margarita machine.” Harley said this was actually a blender that was used, rarely, to mix drinks for staff or faculty.

The implication was “that I was drinking on the job,” Harley said, but “the truth is that every commander is designated authority to authorize consumption of alcohol at events on a rare and occasional basis. I did just that, with my personal staff, or travel team, or a group that might be celebrating an event. I would guess this was every four to five months on average.

“And yes, once or twice – in three years, mind you – we would have sodas and margaritas with staff members for camaraderie, as is authorized.”

The AP cited emails Harley sent to “hundreds of students, faculty and staff that raised eyebrows, including offers of 'free hugs' and games of Twister in his office.” Harley told The Journal that such a reaction suggests some did not understand his sense of humor, which he describes as “quirky,” and which some at the college found refreshing, but which apparently disturbed others. The intent of his humor, he said, was to build fraternity and reduce stress.

“Claims of inappropriate personal behavior like 'hugging' and 'playing Twister' were based on emails I sent in which I used humor to break down barriers,” Harley said.

One, dated Aug. 20, 2018, had “Open Door” in the subject line.

“Team – I am in the office today with nothing on the schedule due to a change in travel plans,” it began. “Feel free to stop by for coffee or to chat, commiserate, read books, sing songs, sign paperwork, and/or play twister. Hula hoop wouldn't fit in the car.”

Another, sent on Oct. 10, 2017, invited the “team” to join him at the Newport Officer's Club, or “The O Club,” as it is known.

“I will buy some pitchers of ice cold coca cola and some Newport Storm and a few plates of Nachos and the like,” the email read. “There will be free camaraderie… You can ask for a raise (no promises)… I offer free hugs… We can celebrate passing our fitness test and surviving our flu shots… Faculty and staff and students and friends and kids are welcome… We can solve the North Korea problem (no promises)… We can let our hair down (mine already is)…”

Harley, who is bald, told The Journal: “I think this is pretty obvious that this is humor and certainly not inappropriate behavior.”

So, too, the Aug. 20, 2018, Twister remark, Harley said.

“It would be really difficult for so many elderly men to play Twister in the first place without getting seriously hurt,” he said.

Harley's Navy career began in 1979, when he enlisted in the service after graduating from high school in his native Michigan.

“We were very poor, and the Navy offered a lot of opportunities to learn a trade and participate in some sort of G.I. Bill,” Harley said in a 2017 Journal profile. He became an electronics technician, but soon wanted more.

“I liked fixing radios, but I felt like I could provide some leadership and be trained to help others,” he said.

Seeing promise, the Navy sent him to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science and began a climb through the Navy officer ranks.

Harley's official Navy biography notes his two master's degrees and his assignments on destroyers, frigates and cruisers, including command of the USS Milius and commander of Destroyer Squadron 9. Milius, a guided-missile destroyer, supported combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq and resulted in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Harley's last shoreside assignment before becoming Naval War College president was deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy.

States the biography, last updated on Jan. 8: “His personal awards include the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star (accepted on behalf of his crew), Meritorious Service Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Joint Service Achievement Medal, and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.”

Harley's Navy lawyer, Captain House, agreed to speak with The Journal after emphasizing that his comments were his personal opinion and that he could not violate attorney-client privilege.

“Yes, there are some violations that have, at least at this point, been sustained,” House said. “But a number of them are somewhat technical. Some of them could be argued to be one person's judgment versus the other.”

What would not have fit this category, House said, were many of the dismissed allegations.

“Some of the worst stuff in my opinion would have been abusing discretion in hiring or improper relationships with people or taking inappropriate gifts, and none of that was validated by the evidence,” House said. “I would say a number of these allegations will come down to Admiral Harley made a decision and there are people who disagree with that decision. I don't think anything he did was out of malice or dereliction of duty or intent to do anything wrong.”

House added: “He's had a tremendous career. If there were issues about his judgment and character and integrity, it would be surprising to me that he would have risen to the rank of rear admiral and would have been put in charge of the Naval War College.”

Said Harley: “I sometimes wonder if it was worth trying to move an entrenched organization so quickly. But then I know it was my duty to keep the college relevant and make the changes I did, even if I had to pay the price of leadership.

“I therefore, on reflection, would not have changed a single thing.”

©2020 Newport Daily News, R.I. – Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.