Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, who carried on a three-year affair with a captain and had two other inappropriate relationships with subordinates, was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding prison in one of the military's most closely watched courts-martial. (Ellen Ozier / AP)
WASHINGTON — The attorney for Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who pleaded guilty last week to adultery and having inappropriate relationships with several women, said it is possible that his client could still retire as a general.
In a highly charged case, Sinclair was fined $20,000 and reprimanded, but he avoided prison time. Critics, such as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called the sentence a "mockery."
The sentence left open an important question. At what rank will Sinclair, 51, be allowed to retire?
At stake is a lot of money. Sinclair's attorney calculated that the difference between his retiring as a lieutenant colonel and a brigadier general would amount to $832,000 if he would retire today and live to age 82.
"It's possible he will retire as a general, and it is possible he will retire at the last rank he served honorably," said Richard Scheff, Sinclair's attorney.
Some legal experts say it's unlikely the Army will let him retire at his current rank, given the crimes Sinclair pleaded guilty to.
"I think that's whistling past the graveyard," said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School.
The matter will be decided by the secretary of the Army based on a recommendation by a "grade determination" review board, a somewhat arcane panel convened to review such cases, which are not common.
The regulations state that the review board makes the determination based on the last year the soldier served "satisfactorily."
The crimes Sinclair pleaded guilty to began when he was a colonel, so the board could conclude that the last rank he served honorably was as a lieutenant colonel.
The board has some discretion in applying the regulations, but it is "deeply unlikely" it would conclude he served satisfactorily as a colonel and brigadier general, Fidell said.
Scheff said he has spoken to people about the retirement process, presumably so he can help advise his client. The board allows the officer to present information in support of retiring at their current rank, but they do not have a right to appear before the panel.
Sinclair's case sparked headlines and became emblematic of a broad sexual harassment problem in the military.
Sinclair had initially been charged with more serious crimes, including sexual assault, but the government's case collapsed amid allegations that top brass improperly tried to influence the case.
Prosecutors rejected a plea offer amid fears that such a move would strengthen calls for the military to change its criminal justice system.
Some lawmakers have pushed for changes that would remove the authority to prosecute serious crimes from military commanders, in an effort to create a more independent military justice system.
One such bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., failed in the Senate this month.
Advocates for change may have an unlikely ally. Scheff said Sinclair, too, would like to see some changes in the military justice system, but he cannot discuss them publicly since he remains on active duty.