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Nation
How a Senate panel voted to advance Hyten's nomination despite assault allegations

WASHINGTON — Newly obtained documents from a military investigation into sexual assault allegations against President Donald Trump’s pick to be the No. 2 officer at the Pentagon provide insight into how a Senate committee decided to recommend the nominee for confirmation, as lawmakers prepare for a final vote early next month.

Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have said little publicly about their closed-door sessions with Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who was accused by an Army colonel of making unwanted sexual contact with her on several occasions in 2017.

Hyten is currently head of U.S. Strategic Command, which is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base.

THE WORLD-HERALD 

John Hyten

The panel voted 20-7 last month to recommend that Hyten be confirmed as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with several lawmakers stating that he had been wrongly accused.

Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the Washington Post, including a 59-page summary of the Air Force Office of Special Investigation’s examination of the allegations, shed light on what may have convinced the panel’s members.

The materials, which also include a 367-page Army inspector general report about Hyten’s accuser, Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, suggest that while serious questions about her credibility were raised by her former co-workers and other military officials, investigators did not reach a conclusion on whether Hyten had assaulted her — leaving it to lawmakers to make a judgment call.

Hyten has denied the allegations. But he also faced some tough questions about them.

In one issue raised in findings due to be released soon by the Air Force, a civilian witness told investigators that Hyten paid for and took a polygraph, and that the inconclusive results “frustrated” him. Hyten declined to address questions about the polygraph in a second interview with investigators, according to the Air Force report.

For many senators, assessing Spletstoser’s credibility came down to two key factors: an internal military assessment that she had created a “toxic work environment,” which prompted her dismissal from Hyten’s command, and questions about her mental state at the time of the firing.

Elements of both are detailed in the Air Force investigation’s summary and the previously undisclosed Army inspector general investigation of whistleblower claims Spletstoser raised against Hyten’s chief of staff after she was dismissed.

Investigators found that Hyten’s top aide, Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Karbler, acted properly and within his authority.

Both reports detail claims by Spletstoser’s colleagues that she was sharp-tongued, foul-mouthed and often combative, though reviews were mixed as to whether her style was “toxic.” Their interviews also suggest that Hyten was either unaware of Spletstoser’s behavior or condoned it.

Hyten gave Spletstoser a glowing job performance review in mid-November 2017, just as his command was launching an initial workplace climate assessment that prompted the probe of Spletstoser in late December, and her eventual dismissal. Hyten’s defenders have accused Spletstoser of fabricating the sexual assault charges in an effort to exact revenge for her termination.

But Spletstoser alleges that the focus on her “toxic leadership” was an attempt to get rid of her after the most egregious of the alleged sexual assaults, in which she said Hyten ejaculated after pinning her against him in her hotel room at the Reagan National Defense Forum in early December 2017.

Senators challenged Hyten during his public hearing last month to explain why he had supported Spletstoser when her conduct was so objectionable to others in his command. He testified that he was slow to realize Spletstoser was a toxic leader, but that once he did, “I moved quickly in order to deal with that.”

The Air Force’s report indicates that Hyten recommended her for employment to other senior leaders, including the Army’s top two officers, Gens. Mark Milley and James McConville. Emails that Spletstoser provided to the Post suggest that Hyten continued to advocate on her behalf into January 2018, even as the Army was determining that her conduct was worthy of investigation.

On Jan. 21, after an investigation was launched into Spletstoser’s actions at Stratcom, Hyten wrote to Lt. Gen. John Murray to “sing her praises” and offer flexibility on when she could report to her next job if it would help in selecting her to be his executive officer.

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“Just a few things about her,” Hyten wrote in an email. “She is brilliant, tough and detail-oriented.” He added, “For complete transparency, she has one quality that rubs some people the wrong way — she can be demanding — but I like that.”

The authenticity of the emails could not be verified, but their content appears to match descriptions in the Air Force report.

Murray, since promoted to be the four-star general in charge of Army Futures Command, recalled to Air Force investigators that he interviewed Spletstoser but chose a more qualified candidate. Spletstoser, Murray said, “did not have a good reputation in the Army” and had been described to him as abrasive.

Spletstoser defended her style in an interview.

“Can you argue that, ‘Hey, you were mean to people’? Yeah, I’ve apologized to every one of them, and I own that,” she said. “If you were being sexually assaulted behind closed doors and you were being pressured and manipulated by a four-star who held everything you hold dear in the palm of his hand, and he could destroy you, maybe you wouldn’t be so nice, either.”

Yet some say it was Spletstoser who was manipulating the system. Before accusing Hyten of sexual assault, she told Army investigators that “the golden ticket to get somebody fired” in the military is to say “they’re toxic, they’re a bully, or they did something like sexual harassment or sexual assault,” according to the inspector general’s report. “Those are the four ways to get people fired automatically. It just is.”

Spletstoser told the Post that those comments did not refer to Hyten “nor is it in any way something I would do to get someone fired.”

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Heidi Brown, who overlapped at Stratcom with Spletstoser and Hyten, said Stratcom staff members have rallied around Hyten because of their experiences with both officers.

The Army inspector general notes that hours after Spletstoser was dismissed from her job working for Hyten on Feb. 26, 2018, she sent messages that staff members feared suggested she might commit suicide.

In one email, Spletstoser wrote to Hyten and his senior enlisted adviser, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Patrick McMahon, that she “could not live with this situation” in which she was “wrongly accused of being a toxic leader.”

“My lawyer will continue to clear my name not that I will be around to care,” she said in the message. “Well the only one who gets to judge me now is God. By the time you read this the only thing worth doing is to pray for me as I have for you.”

She sent a message with similar themes the same day to her lawyer, noting that she did not “plan on being around any longer” and that it “makes me a coward.” The lawyer, whose name is redacted from investigative documents, alerted Stratcom officials, who notified police in Omaha, where she lived.

Spletstoser also called Hyten, who was giving a speech at Yale University that day but had instructed his security detail to alert him if she phoned. When he called her back, Hyten later said, she told him that if she had had a gun, “it would already be done” and that Hyten would “have to live with this and think about this.”

Spletstoser has denied that her messages were suicide threats, stating that they were “clearly attention-grabbing” and reflected “poor word choice” — and were simply “my passive-aggressive way of saying: You did this, and how could you do this?” — referring to the alleged sexual assault.

Spletstoser added that she felt Hyten and his subordinates tried to paint her as mentally unstable to “destroy” her credibility before she could accuse Hyten of assault.

Hyten’s defenders, including some senators, have said Spletstoser previously incurred a temporary brain injury and suffered from minor post-traumatic stress disorder.

Spletstoser said those were combat-incurred ailments from over a decade ago. Three days before her termination, according to the inspector general’s report, Karbler agreed that Spletstoser had “no evidence of any mental” health issues, and though Omaha police took her to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation the night she was fired, the report also indicates that staff dismissed her hours later.

Army officials declined to say why Spletstoser was allowed to take her current job at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

The service’s chief of public affairs, Brig. Gen. Amy Hannah, said that as a matter of policy, the Army does not publicly discuss which Army personnel are considered for positions on the Army senior staff.

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Movies
breaking
UNO grad, 'Easy Rider' writer and actor Peter Fonda dies at 79

Actor and Omaha college graduate Peter Fonda, the son of a Hollywood legend who became a movie star in his own right with the counter-culture classic "Easy Rider," has died.

His family said in a statement that Fonda died Friday morning at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79.

The official cause of death was respiratory failure due to lung cancer.

"In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts," the family said in a statement. "As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy."

The Fondas were a famous fixture of the Omaha Community Playhouse

Fonda was the son of Henry Fonda, who was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, and started his stage career at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Henry Fonda went on to act for five decades, winning an Academy Award for his final film, "On Golden Pond." In 1999, he was named the sixth-greatest male star of all time by the American Film Institute.

Peter Fonda lived in Omaha off and on for eight years and was also a fixture of the Omaha Community Playhouse, where he performed while studying at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, then known as Omaha University. 

His first amateur performance was in a 1958 campus production of "Harvey." According to a World-Herald article published in 1961, Fonda soon joined the Omaha Community Playhouse and devoted himself to getting "solid experience."

"I resisted the temptation (acting) as long as I could," he said in a 1961 World-Herald interview. "I tried becoming a lawyer or doctor or something, but now I guess it's going to be the theater if I'm good enough."

Fonda carved his own path with his nonconformist tendencies and earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing the psychedelic road trip movie "Easy Rider," in which he also starred. He would never win that golden statuette but was nominated again for his leading performance as a Vietnam veteran and widowed beekeeper in "Ulee's Gold."

He was born in New York in 1940 and was 10 years old when his mother died. She had a nervous breakdown after learning of her husband's affair and was confined to a hospital. In 1950, she killed herself, slashing her throat with a razor. It would be about five years before Peter Fonda learned the truth behind her death.

Fonda had an estranged relationship with his father but said they grew closer over the years. They returned to Omaha together for a Playhouse fundraiser in January 1981. Henry Fonda died in 1982.

Although the younger Fonda never achieved the status of his father or even his older sister Jane Fonda, the impact of "Easy Rider," which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, was enough to cement his place in popular culture.

The film was a hit at Cannes, netted a best screenplay Oscar nomination for Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern, and has since been listed on the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100 American films. The establishment gave its official blessing in 1998, when "Easy Rider" was included in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Fonda's output may have been prolific, but it was not always well-regarded, which he was acutely aware of. But he said "Ulee's Gold," which came out in 1997, was the "most fun" he had ever had making a movie. He wore the same wire-rimmed glasses his father wore in "On Golden Pond" in the role, although he said beyond that, he was not channeling Henry Fonda in the performance. He lost out on the Oscar that year to his "Easy Rider" co-star Jack Nicholson, who won for "As Good as It Gets."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Photos: Remembering actor Peter Fonda, 1940-2019

Politics
Anti-pipeline activists, county commissioner differ on whether $49,000 payment was a bribe

LINCOLN — The leading group opposing the Keystone XL pipeline says that pipeline developer TC Energy has offered what the group calls a $49,000 bribe to a Holt County Board member for his cooperation in getting the controversial project built.

The board member, William Tielke of Atkinson, said the money, which he disclosed in a state conflict of interest filing in July, was “not a bribe to me.”

And a spokeswoman for TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, said that similar payments have been offered or are in the process of being offered to all landowners, like Tielke, who have signed right-of-way agreements for the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana.

“The construction completion bonus is neither unique to Mr. Tielke nor is it unusual,” said spokeswoman Robynn Tysver, who added that 90% of landowners in Montana and South Dakota and 75% of landowners in Nebraska have already signed it.

She said the only specific request in getting the bonus is that landowners be “open to negotiating with us” over additional workspace during construction.

In July, Tielke filed a conflict of interest statement with the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission stating that he had sold an easement to TC Energy so the pipeline could cross his land in Holt County. Then, he added, “But they do say they will pay me around $49,000 after the project is completed if I work well with them.”

Jane Kleeb, of anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, said that the conflict of interest statement clearly outlined a “bribe,” and that it was filed only after Bold Nebraska members in Holt County raised concerns.

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TC Energy “can call them ‘business’ deals, but these are government officials making decisions and voting on a project from a foreign-owned corporation in exchange for treating them well. They get paid. That is just wrong,” Kleeb said.

The bribery allegation is the latest development in the controversial history of the Keystone XL project, a 36-inch pipeline proposed more than a decade ago to carry heavy crude oil from Canada’s tar sands region to oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The latest route of the pipeline crosses Holt County, including land owned by Tielke, a longtime member of the County Board and its chairman.

Tielke in an interview said he had inquired with the state accountability office about whether to file a conflict of interest statement after learning about a “cooperation bonus” being offered to landowners. He said he learned about it when TC Energy workers visited his property to check for any special issues that would need to be addressed during construction, such as electrical lines crossing the planned pipeline route.

Tielke said he was told that the bonus would be figured per mile of pipeline, which in his case works out to about $49,000.

The bonus, he was told, was for “working well” with the project and would be paid at the end of construction.

Tielke said he didn’t know exactly what the company meant by “working well,” but he said no one had mentioned anything about his role on the County Board.

“It’s not a bribe to me,” he said.

Kleeb called the board member’s explanation “totally laughable,” and said Tielke’s own words, in the conflict of interest filing, prove that. The bonus, she said, is another example of TC Energy “greasing the wheels” so they can build the pipeline.

Tysver, the TC Energy spokeswoman, said that the company has been working for 10 years with some of the landowners, and that the bonus is intended to “fairly compensate landowners for inconveniences we may cause during construction.”

Frank Daley, the executive director of the State Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission, said in a July 22 letter to Tielke that the $49,000 payment offered by TC Energy would constitute a conflict of interest that would prevent him from “participating, discussing or voting” on any future matters that would “either facilitate the construction of the pipeline or impede the construction.” That, Daley said, is because he would personally get financial benefits if the pipeline were built.

The Holt County Board, in 2010, adopted new zoning regulations for oil pipelines, and in 2013, the board voted 7-0 to oppose the pipeline, citing potential threats to groundwater. Tielke joined in the 7-0 vote against the Keystone XL, but called it largely a symbolic vote.

If construction begins on the pipeline, the County Board would be confronted with new issues, including usage of county roads by construction vehicles and payment for any damages, as well as easements across county right of way.

The Keystone XL is currently being held up by three pending lawsuits. Two are in federal court in Montana concerning the adequacy of federal environmental studies. The other is in Nebraska over whether the State Public Service Commission had authority to approve an alternate route across the state. The Nebraska lawsuit was argued before the State Supreme Court in November, but still awaits a ruling.

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Higher-education
Hypnotism, gnomes and a banana-slicked slide: How Nebraska colleges will start the school year

Five decades from now, some senior citizens might recall their initiation to college as a balloon launch, a slippery slide or a brush with magic.

Colleges across the region and nation prepare for a new school year with activities designed to give freshmen a soft landing on campus and a smooth takeoff in their college careers. Colleges want students to experience an immediate connection to their campus so they don’t feel like outsiders in a horde of classmates.

Across Nebraska, colleges offer a variety of welcoming events, some grave and some goofy, designed to ease the adjustment to a new home and a new stage of life. For some, homesickness is inevitable.

“When I was a freshman going through Welcome Week, I wasn’t fully ready to leave home yet,” said Nick Goodenow, a Creighton University senior from Okoboji, Iowa. “It’s a process. I would always recommend, just take it day by day.”

At Union College in Lincoln, a balloon launch (the balloons and string are biodegradable) early Wednesday afternoon will mark a key moment in the new school year.

The new students already have their balloons in their hands when they gather beneath Union’s clock tower with their parents. “And we pray, and we wish them good luck,” said Kim Canine, vice president for student life at Union. As they begin to sing “Warrior” by Christian singer Hannah Kerr, they release the balloons, and the parents drift off.

Moms and dads “know this is the time where you’ve gotta let them go,” Canine said.

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One of the events Sunday at Peru State’s Party at the Plex is less icebreaker than it is banana masher. Student leaders stomp the fruit out of dozens of bananas and spread the mush over a long, wet, soapy tarp, which is angled down a hill.

Kealyn Ensminger, a fifth-year student at Peru State, will help with the "banana slide" on Sunday. 

“It’s kind of weird, I would say, but it’s not super gross,” Kealyn Ensminger said reassuringly. She is a fifth-year student from Homer, Nebraska.

Then what? Kids slide down the tarp on their backs, hands and knees, holding each other’s hands, forming pyramids, standing like surfers. If it sounds treacherous, well, these are mainly freshmen. They’ll figure it out.

Connie Boehm, director of student resilience at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the gumption to move out of one’s comfort zone plays a role in fitting in.

Try, Boehm said, to meet at least one other student in each class by introducing yourself and shaking hands.

Boehm has a team of 60 student “ambassadors” and “coaches” who have been trained to offer help of various kinds. Seeking assistance is a smart move, she said, not a weak one.

“Don’t ever hesitate to ask for help and reach out,” said Boehm, whose program is designed in part to help students bounce back from a poor test performance, the end of a relationship or homesickness. Life is not just about winning, she said. At its simplest, Boehm’s Office of Big Red Resilience acknowledges that life knocks you down and that you must grab the grit inside to get up.

College isn’t merely about partying, staying up late and playing video games and foosball. “College requires a sacrifice,” said T.J. McDowell, UNL’s assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. “If it wasn’t hard, everybody would do it.”

McDowell said UNL staffers and leaders know that “every person and every interaction matters. We want to make sure that they feel that — that they matter.”

Omar Correa, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said he spoke minimal English when he started college at Iowa State University. He came from Puerto Rico.

Correa said he took careful notes and used a Spanish-English dictionary to figure out some lectures and assignments in his undergrad days.

“It took me probably three times as long to study,” he said. “But we made it.”

He encourages new students in the residence halls to keep their room doors open. Other kids are nervous, too, and want to meet people, he said.

Go to lunch or dinner with your roommate, Correa said, and meet people together. Find out where your classes are before you start them.

The language challenge gradually diminished, Correa said. He knew that he was on the right path, he said, when he had his first dream in English when he was a freshman. He was so happy, he said, that he told his buddies.

He also encourages students to appreciate the here and now.

“Don’t blink,” he said. “Just absorb every moment and try to be in the present.”

Midland University in Fremont will distribute Apple iPads and Apple Pencils on Aug. 27 to each full-time undergraduate student. Hastings College has already made a similar giveaway.

At Chadron State College in northwest Nebraska, motivational speaker-educator-magician-hypnotist Robert Hackenson Jr. will take the stage Sunday evening at the Student Center Ballroom.

Hackenson — who said that over the past 15 years, he has taken his act to 47 states, Canada and Australia — talks about serious young-adult issues while mixing in magic and hypnotizing some students.

He talks about substance abuse, decision-making, caving in to bad influences, comparing oneself to others and social media safety. He said he doesn’t want students to grow bored, and the addition of magic and hypnotism helps.

Taylor Osmotherly, associate director of residence life at Chadron State, said Hackenson has been coming to the college for about seven years. His act makes serious subjects enjoyable to listen to, Osmotherly said.

“Hopefully, it eases them into it (the school year) with some fun,” he said.

At UNL, students will participate in small groups in a hunt for yard ornament gnomes. The gnome hunt will take place Thursday night in the 5-acre Maxwell Arboretum on East Campus.

Amanda Orr, area coordinator for East Campus residence life, said the event is open to all students, but especially those who live in the two East Campus residence halls, Massengale Residential Center and Love Hall.

Orr told a UNL spokeswoman that she has been personally involved in a gnome hunt and that it is “a unique, quirky way for people to interact with somebody they’ve never met before and to have a shared experience.” She’s referring there to other people, not gnomes.

Goodenow, the Creighton senior, found that getting involved in things — history club, Knights of Columbus, residence hall council and volunteering for Welcome Week activities — helped him meet people and make peace with this new period in his life.

During Welcome Week activities every August, about 175 students help new students move into Creighton’s residence halls. Last year, Goodenow saw a young man moving in who looked lost.

“I told him to be open to people you don’t know,” Goodenow said. When the young man is invited to study at the library with someone or to get a pizza with the guys, Goodenow said, he should do it.

Goodenow learned a lot himself about getting through homesickness and adapting to a new place. By the end of his freshman year, a surprising thing had happened. He didn’t want the school year to end.

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