Probe finds misconduct by California National Guard commander; Pentagon nixes it

California Air National Guard Col. Lisa Nemeth assumes command of the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, California. June 13, 2020. U.S. (Staff Sgt. Nicole Wright/Air National Guard)
California Air National Guard Col. Lisa Nemeth speaks after assuming command of the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in June 2020. (Staff Sgt. Nicole Wright)

The secret investigation of a California National Guard officer focused on small and large matters — the colonel’s Dalmatian and the mess the dog made in a military building, but also her handling of another high-ranking officer's drunk-driving crash and reports of plummeting morale among firefighting pilots she oversaw.

Inspectors general for the California guard conducted more than three dozen confidential interviews and pored over financial records and other documents. They came to a clear conclusion: Col. Lisa Nemeth, the target of the probe, had engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer.

That judgment, issued behind closed doors in 2022, endangered a planned promotion of Nemeth to general, according to two sources familiar with the inquiry who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

But then came an extraordinary telephone call from the Pentagon — one that ignited a seething cold war between the California Military Department, which is the parent organization of the guard, and both the National Guard Bureau, headquartered in Arlington, Va., and the Air Force, a Times investigation has found.

At stake, the California side maintains, is nothing less than the fairness and incorruptibility of the military justice system and the broader imperative of the independence of all guards on state affairs. And it comes as the California guard labors to clean up its own house after a long run of scandals that ended the careers of several generals and other high-ranking officers.

The June 2022 call to Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, the adjutant general heading the California Military Department at the time, was placed by then-Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard for the United States and its territories.

“Normally I stay out of all state business, but this one also impacts us,” Loh said in a voicemail message, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times.

Loh went on to ask Baldwin to throw out the findings against Nemeth and bring in an outsider to redo the investigation. Loh noted on the call that Nemeth was about to join his staff. He suggested the guard bring in a woman to conduct a new inquiry, although the principal investigator on the original case was a woman.

“I’m really asking you to re-look at the whole thing,” Loh said.

Baldwin did not grant Loh’s request. And that’s when tensions began to mount. Eventually, they boiled over when the Washington, D.C.-based Air Force inspector general reversed the California findings with no further investigation and cleared Nemeth, according to internal records reviewed by The Times.

The office has the authority to overrule decisions by state inspectors general, but California guard officials say that rarely happens.

In a memo citing reasons for the reversal, Inspector General Stephen Davis' office said the review of the case "did not identify actions, decisions, or omissions that seriously compromised Col. Nemeth’s character or standing as an officer."

Among those outraged by the Pentagon's move was Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, who succeeded Baldwin as head of the California guard in 2022.

“Quite frankly, it is perplexing to comprehend how the Air Force IG summarily non-concurs with all four substantiated allegations, especially given the lack of any new evidence,” Beevers wrote in a scathing memo to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin, which The Times obtained under the California Public Records Act.

“This superficial dismissal of this substantiated allegation defies the basic precepts of good order in discipline in a military command while establishing a new, disturbing precedent.”

Beevers, who wrote the memo in response to Times' queries, said the “flimsy logic” used by the Air Force IG to override the findings of the California investigation compromised his efforts to reform an organization that was reeling from scandals involving its senior leaders.The latter included a general fired for having subordinates perform personal tasks, similar to allegations against Nemeth.

“When the Air Force IG neglects and/or intentionally refuses to uphold the established ethical standard, as has been clearly accomplished in this case, my ability to effect positive, meaningful change to good order and discipline is undermined,” Beevers wrote.

Earlier this month, Loh retired. He declined to comment, and Nemeth did not respond to interview requests from The Times. The U.S. Senate in May confirmed a nomination of Nemeth for the rank of brigadier general, but the National Guard did not respond to queries of whether her promotion has been finalized.

At the time of her nomination, Nemeth was serving as the Air National Guard advisor to the commander, Air Mobility Command, at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, according to the Defense Department.

Ann Stefanek, a Secretary of the Air Force spokesperson, said Loh's phone call had no bearing on Davis' decision to reverse the findings against Nemeth and that he didn't even learn of the call until much later.

"That was not part of their calculus at all," she said.

Davis said in a letter to Beevers that the evidence in the California investigation did not support the allegations against Nemeth and, because the case had been open for more than two years, "finalizing the investigation was the proper course of action."

The 19,000-member California National Guard serves a dual state-and-federal mission that includes responding to earthquakes, wildfires and other emergencies in the state under the direction of the governor as well as, when activated by the Pentagon, aiding U.S. armed forces in military operations overseas. The National Guard Bureau has an administrative role, overseeing staffing, training and equipment needs for the guards.

In recent years, a series of embarrassing episodes involving Guard leaders have fueled a perception that high-ranking officers who break the rules are protected from punishment.

They included a top general who received only a letter of admonishment after having underlings perform personal errands for him, take his mother shopping and complete a part of his cybersecurity training. After The Times reported on the matter, and following a second investigation, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Magram was ousted from his job.

Magram, who was once director of the Guard’s air staff, was the fifth general to resign, retire or be fired after Times investigations since 2019.

In another case, Brig. Gen. David Hawkins received a written reprimand after an internal inquiry found that he made antisemitic and homophobic slurs, including that Jews are unrepentant sinners and that gay marriage is a reason terrorists attack the United States. He resigned.

Dwight Stirling, a former judge advocate for the California guard, said it was improper for Loh to disregard the chain of command in the Nemeth case and interfere with a state investigation.

“It’s the attempt to short circuit the proper ongoings of investigations. It’s the attempt to cover up misconduct,” he said. “This senior federal official had picked this officer and didn’t want the misconduct that she engaged in to derail her career. Well, you’re not supposed to do that as a senior manager. You’re supposed to respect the investigation.”

The saga at the 146th Airlift Wing at Channel Islands, a unit nicknamed the Hollywood Guard because of its proximity to the film industry when it was previously based in Van Nuys, began after Nemeth took the helm in a June 2020 ceremony. Nemeth, a pilot who was new to the Guard, was saluted by the organization as California’s first female wing commander.

The celebration was short-lived.

Staffing for the firefighting program — made up of a team of highly skilled pilots who fly C-130J tankers over backcountry blazes — dropped to critical levels. Most pilots work at the wing part time and hold outside jobs with airlines, and firefighting missions are largely voluntary. Some pilots felt Nemeth was not prioritizing training for the dangerous assignment, according to the California IG report reviewed by The Times.

The commander of the 115th Airlift Squadron, which is part of the 146th wing, quit his post in July 2021, telling investigators he was fielding daily complaints from pilots about wing leadership, the report said.

“Guys were coming to me just livid and saying they're not gonna fly ... they're not gonna volunteer for any more trips 'cause as long as, you know, if leadership doesn't care about them, then why should they care about the place,” he said, according to a transcript of his interview.

Another firefighting pilot, whose name was redacted in the report, shared a similar sentiment.

“It was very apparent that (the program) was not being given the attention that it deserved and not because it’s a glamour mission but because it … inherently has risks that need to be mitigated,” the pilot said.

At one point, wing leaders discussed forcing the pilots to participate in the grueling missions because there weren’t enough volunteers, which one said contributed to overall burnout, the report stated. And Nemeth did not inform higher-ups in the guard that the staffing shortages had become severe, according to the IG report.

“The recurring perception of Col. Nemeth being more concerned with her ‘report card’ than the morale and welfare of her airmen, is lent credence by this omission to senior leadership,” the report said.

According to the report, Nemeth said she felt she was at a disadvantage because pilots were not supportive of female officers.

But the report identified other alleged lapses in judgment.

When Nemeth’s second-in-command, Col. Bill Green, was arrested in March 2021 on suspicion of drunk driving after crashing into an electrical pole, Nemeth fought to keep him in his position and planned to put him in charge when she had to travel. He was grounded, but allowed to start flying firefighting missions again two months after his arrest. Investigators concluded that Nemeth’s decision further eroded morale.

Nemeth was also accused of having subordinates care for her Dalmatian at work, which investigators found disrupted operations and distracted people from doing their jobs.

In one incident, the dog urinated on the carpet during a meeting and a flight surgeon left to get supplies to clean it up, according to Beever’s memo and the investigative report.

In another, government funds were used to buy expensive pet cleaning supplies, including a carpet cleaner machine, and two Dyson fans. Others on the base took notice and brought their own pets to work, the report said.

Dogs aren’t allowed on the property other than for official purposes, a rule other senior officers struggled to enforce, according to the report.

“It’s tough to enforce when the boss brings her dog to work,” one operations commander told investigators, the report said. The commander’s name was redacted.

During the investigation, the report stated, Nemeth said that she wasn’t aware of the rule and that her puppy made people “smile and laugh when it was a horrible time.”

In his voicemail message, Loh seemed to suggest that the complaints about her could be viewed as reflecting a bias against female commanders.

“I guess she went in there and did some cleanup work and now a bunch of IG complaints,” Loh said. “This is about the third one in Guard Nation where there’s allegations of toxic climate by females and of course that’s getting the highest scrutiny … Gimme a call back or if not, just please take a look at this case.”

The inspector general who was the principal investigator, Col. Shawna Pavey, declined to comment. The attorney who worked on the inquiry is also a woman, Charmaine Betty-Singleton. She did not respond to interview requests.

In an email to The Times, a California guard spokesman, Lt. Col. Brandon Hill, dismissed the suggestion that sexism played a role in the case.

“In this matter, the overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary stands on its own,” Hill wrote. He said Pavey has an "impeccable record" and has never had a case overturned during her 10 years as an inspector general.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.