WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps on Monday fired the general in charge of its sexual assault prevention and response efforts for remarks he made at a public meeting disparaging claims of sexual harassment at his command as "fake news."
Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein was removed as director of Marine and Family Programs by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller after an investigation of his comments on April 6. USA TODAY reported that Stein had referred to allegations of sexual harassment at the Quantico, Va., base as "fake news," and joked that he lived vicariously through a Navy chaplain recently fired for having sex in public.
The Marines also received an anonymous tip about his comments, which were made before hundreds of Marines and civilian employees under Stein's command at an "all-hands" meeting.
"After reviewing the investigation, Neller determined that he lost confidence in Stein's ability to lead this particular organization, and Stein has been removed and reassigned," according to a statement from the Marine Corps. "Leaders are responsible for establishing an environment conducive to mission accomplishment."
Removal for loss of confidence typically kills the career of a general officer.
Stein's remarks, confirmed by several people who attended the meeting, were aimed at allegations reported by USA TODAY of two civilian women employees of the division. They allege that a Marine officer on several occasions showed them that he was sexually aroused and that Marine leadership had dismissed their concerns. The officer denies the allegations.
After the story appeared in February, Neller ordered a new investigation of their claims. That probe is ongoing.
Several times during his talk on April 6, Stein called the story "fake news," a derisive term regularly used by President Trump to dismiss negative news articles. Stein also made a joking reference to Navy chaplain Loften Thornton, who was fired in March. Thornton had been caught on video having sex outside a bar in New Orleans, USA TODAY learned.
Neller has struggled over the last year to change cultural problems in his ranks. A year ago, news broke of the Marines United scandal, in which a private Facebook group of current and former Marines shared often-explicit photos of women without their consent. Several Marines have been court-martialed, while others have received lesser punishment. It also prompted a new policy on social media use.
In February, Neller fired his top liaison to Congress, Brig. Gen. Norman Cooling, after the Senate Armed Services Committee asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to investigate allegations that he had created a hostile work environment.
Stein's comments damaged the reputation of Marine Corps leadership to handle issues of sexual harassment and assault, said Scott Jensen, a retired Marine colonel and the CEO of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that called for Stein's firing.
"This decision validates the severity and negative influence of such egregious actions on the part of a general officer," Jensen said. "People lost confidence in the genuine commitment of the Marine Corps leadership to make significant and lasting change and they will need to double down to gain trust."
Rep. Jackie Speier, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, said,“I applaud Commandant Neller’s swift action, but let’s see if Brigadier General Stein will leave with his full rank and pension.”