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‘Bigamist col.' ex-wife: Aid lawbreakers' wives

Dec. 26, 2012 - 09:44AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 26, 2012 - 09:44AM  |  
Kris Johnson, ex-wife of the disgraced former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, believes the Army should do more to punish lawbreakers while protecting their spouses.
Kris Johnson, ex-wife of the disgraced former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, believes the Army should do more to punish lawbreakers while protecting their spouses. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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The ex-wife of bigamous former brigade commander James Johnson III is calling for expanded financial protections for the spouses of lawbreaking service members, saying her husband was given a light sentence to protect her.

"In my opinion, the [jury] panel was trying to protect me," Kristina Johnson, whose 25-year marriage ended in September, told Army Times. "I got to keep my military medical benefits. I got to keep my military privileges. I got to keep half of Jim's retirement, but justice wasn't served. It was a mixed feeling for me.

"He just walked. He just got away with misconduct," she said.

In a sentence that sparked outrage among the ranks, then-Col. Johnson was fined $300,000 and allowed to retire as a lieutenant colonel in connection with bigamy, adultery, fraud and other crimes he committed to further an affair with an Iraqi woman. The West Point graduate was sentenced after pleading guilty to 15 charges at his court-martial in Germany in June.

Mrs. Johnson said that she had asked prosecutors in the case to ask the jury to take away her husband's retirement, which was within its power, and award a portion of it to her, which was not.

"They said, ‘Kris, we can't. There's no precedent.' There was nothing on the books that would allow them to do that," she said of prosecutors. "If I took the stand, I would have asked for that."

On Dec. 12, Mrs. Johnson met with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who expressed displeasure with the sentence in an Army Times interview last month, and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., to ask that juries in courts-martial be allowed to hand tough sentences to lawbreakers without fear of harming their spouses.

"I was extremely humbled," she said of the meeting with Odierno. "There are many issues, and he met with me on this. He was interested in my input. ... He's happy to have me knock on doors of politicians who can make legislative change."

She said Odierno told her he wants to increase accountability in the force.

"West Point has a motto that a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal [or] tolerate those who do, and I think he's going to come up with a plan how to address that in the larger Army," she said.

Odierno's office declined to discuss the meeting or the response to Mrs. Johnson's request, but acknowledged senior leaders regularly seek feedback from family members.

"Due to the private nature of these discussions, we don't discuss the specifics out of respect for those families," said spokeswoman Lt. Col. Kathleen Turner.

Wilson's office plans to research how frequently court-martial verdicts penalize spouses — Chad Sydnor, the congressman's military legislative assistant, said he believes it rarely happens — and what the potential cost of the proposed protections would be.

"We're in the research phase to see if this is feasible, but our inclination right now would be to expand the scope of that program," Sydnor said, with the caveat that any legislation with a spending requirement is a tough sell in Congress.

Existing legal protections allow spouses of service members discharged for domestic violence to receive benefits and entitlements for up to three years. The spouse may also receive a portion of the service member's retirement pay if the service member committed the offense while eligible for retirement.

Mrs. Johnson is advocating that these protections, which fall under the Defense Departmentwide Transitional Compensation Program, be expanded to include any spouse whose service member faces dismissal, incarceration or the loss of retirement benefits — as long as the spouse was not involved in the criminal wrongdoing.

Mrs. Johnson said that when she alerted authorities to her husband's misconduct, she risked her family's financial future, and that many spouses in similar situations opt instead to suffer in silence.

Mrs. Johnson, now a saleswoman for a high-end clothing boutique in New Jersey, said spouses who sacrifice their own careers to support their families and their husbands' careers have earned financial protection from the military.

"A lot of spouses give back as volunteers, so they're also serving," Mrs. Johnson said. "You've invested yourself … in the Army community with your time and energy."

Sydnor said he understands that sacrifice.

"In [James Johnson's] case, if they have demoted him, confined him and revoked his retirement, [Mrs. Johnson] would have essentially been tossed out on the street," he said.

Expanded protections would negate a widely used defense in courts-martial, and a strong deterrent against crime, said Greg T. Rinckey, a former Army attorney in Albany, N.Y.

"I think there would be a lot of heartburn over this one," Rinckey said. "For a lot of my clients, their biggest fear is not incarceration, but will their families be taken care of. This, I think, would dilute that deterrent."

Stephen Karns, a defense attorney in Dallas, acknowledged that while such a change "would not be helpful to my clients," it might be in the military's interest to protect whistle-blowing spouses.

"Without the disincentive for spouses to report, you've got a military who would now be aware of more service members who are breaking the rules," Karns said. "You'd have a better force if everyone's following the rules."

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