As if fiscal chaos in Washington and territorial disputes with China weren’t enough, U.S. naval commanders are now faced with an unprecedented — not to mention tabloid-ready — bribery scandal in the tense Asia-Pacific region.
This week, the Navy summarily relieved the commander of the Japan-based USS Bonhomme Richard in a growing investigation involving prostitutes, luxury travel and hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts.
The former commander of another Japan-based U.S. warship — a refugee from the killing fields of Cambodia who recently made a triumphant return home — was arrested in the same case last month.
The developments are unprecedented, says Mike McDevitt, senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis and a retired Navy rear admiral.
“Commanding officers have been relieved because of professional lapses, poor judgment or simple incompetence. But being accused of sustained criminal behavior is unheard of — at least by me,” says McDevitt, who commanded a carrier battle group in the region in the 1990s.
Federal authorities last month charged Cmdr. Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz with directing warships in the Asia-Pacific region to ports where they were overcharged — in some cases, millions of dollars — for a wide range of services.
Also arrested were the president of the Singapore-based port services company, GDMA, and a supervisor for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
On Wednesday, the Navy announced that Capt. Daniel Dusek had been relieved of command of the USS Bonhomme Richard due to an ongoing Department of Justice investigation — a reference to the bribery case. Although he has not been charged with a crime, “the investigation negatively affected Dusek’s leadership ability and was a distraction to the command mission,” according to a Navy statement.
The “Bonny Dick” is the flagship of the 7th Fleet’s amphibious assault group and recently returned from a summer-long cruise through East Asia and the Western Pacific.
The 7th Fleet is the Navy’s largest battle group based outside the United States and has been largely protected from budget cuts and civilian furloughs that have played havoc with much of the U.S. military this year. The ships routinely operate in waters where China’s increasingly powerful naval forces have been pressing territorial claims.
Misiewicz received a flurry of publicity in 2010 when he commanded the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin on a goodwill mission to Cambodia. That came 37 years after Misiewicz, born Vannak Khem, fled the murderous Khmer Rouge regime as a child. He was adopted by an American woman, raised in the Midwest and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I’ve been thinking about this visit a lot and thinking about all the emotions I will have to cope with about returning to the country I was born in and seeing relatives that have wanted to see me for so long,” Misiewicz said during that visit. “It is important for me to be strong and to remember and honor the sacrifices that were made for me.”
Misiewicz later became deputy operations officer aboard the 7th Fleet’s command ship, the USS Blue Ridge. According to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego, he used his position to direct warships to ports with lax oversight where GDMA was able to overcharge for food, water, fuel and services like waste removal, security and ground transportation.
Overcharges for port visits to Thailand alone in 2011 and 2012 amounted to $2.3 million, according to court records.
In exchange, Misiewicz received the use of prostitutes, luxury travel for himself and family members and, in one case, tickets to a Lady Gaga concert. In one email, the head of GDMA referred to one group of prostitutes in Thailand as his “Elite Thai Seal Team.”
McDevitt said that while the bribery case may be a distraction, it won’t affect the readiness of U.S. forces — particularly aboard Bonhomme Richard.
“Executive officers are screened for command before they go on the job, so it just means ‘Bonny Dick’ will have a new CO (commanding officer) sooner than expected,” he said. “And being the flagship for an admiral commanding the amphibious group — it also means the new CO can count on lots of help.”