Allegations of harassment, intimidation, bullying and creating a hostile work environment have been filed in the form of an ethics complaint against Major Kurt Sorenson, a senior Marine Corps defense counsel, for what appears to be reprisal related to his role as a whistleblower in the government’s case against Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Eric Gilmet.
The cases involving CPO Gilmet, Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Draher, and Gunnery Sergeant Joshua Negron – also referred to as the MARSOC 3 – stem from an incident that took place in Erbil, Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) on New Year’s Eve, 2018 in which the Marine Raiders were assaulted by an American civilian contractor.
United American Patriots (UAP) has supported the MARSOC 3 during their lengthy legal battle by funding their civilian legal representation and generating awareness to members of Congress and to the public about the facts of the cases.
On February 9, 2022, a U.S. Navy judge ruled that there was such overwhelming evidence of unlawful command influence (UCI) resulting from threatening statements made by a senior Marine Judge Advocate against CPO Gilmet’s military defense counsel, that all charges were dismissed with prejudice. GySgt Draher and GySgt Negron’s separate UCI motion hearing outcome is still pending their Marine Corps judge’s decision.
The government has since submitted an appeal brief to fight the judge’s decision in CPO Gilmet’s case. The defense has until May 9, 2022, to submit their response brief. According to CPO Gilmet’s attorney LtCol Colby Vokey (USMC ret.), “The importance of this appeal is not just related to the UCI ruling, it now is tied to the very existence of military defense counsel.”
The threats made by a senior Marine lawyer, Colonel Christopher Shaw, which constituted unlawful command influence are now seemingly being acted upon in the form of a command investigation targeting the whistleblower, Major Sorenson, who initiated the inspector general (IG) complaint against Colonel Shaw. Major Sorenson was also responsible for providing two sworn affidavits affirming Shaw’s illegal statements.
The allegations against Major Sorenson were brought forward by Major Kaniak “Kay” Hill, a Marine prosecutor with the MCIEAST Trial Office Legal Services Support Section at Camp Lejeune.
Unlawful Command Influence
On the morning of November 18, 2021, Captain Matthew Thomas – one of CPO Gilmet’s defense counsels at the time – asked Colonel Shaw in one of several meetings conducted by Shaw at Camp Lejeune, “What is being done to protect the attorneys in that position from outside influences such as political pressures, media pressure and general societal pressures?”
In response, Colonel Shaw stated, “Captain Thomas, I know who you are and what cases you are on, and you are not protected.” Colonel Shaw also explained that there were “secondary effects,” and “consequences” for those attorneys that spent significant time in the Defense Service Organization because of high profile cases such as the notorious Haditha case.
Colonel Shaw’s statements now have the appearance of being prophetic.
In another meeting at Camp Lejeune to judge advocate leadership, Colonel Shaw improperly discussed a pending investigation and expressed his personal feelings that the person being investigated was guilty. Another colonel present had to interrupt and tell Colonel Shaw to cease making such comments.
The only person who attended both meetings involving Colonel Shaw last November was Major Sorenson, the Senior Defense Counsel at Camp Lejeune, so it was not difficult for the government to identify who filed the anonymous IG complaint and target him.
The original defense team for CPO Gilmet included Captain Matthew Thomas (USMC), Captain Keagan Riley (USMC), and Colby Vokey. The defense team established that the statements made by Colonel Shaw, who at the time as Deputy Director was responsible for the Marine Corps’ Military Justice and Community Development, constituted actual unlawful command influence and prejudiced the attorney-client relationship between Captain Thomas and his client – violating Chief Gilmet’s Sixth Amendment rights. As a result, CPO Gilmet was forced to release Captain Thomas and Captain Riley, with whom he had a more than two-year relationship built on trust until the UCI appeared.
Under the direction of Major General Bligh – who is the Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant of the Marine Corps – Colonel Peter Houtz was appointed as the investigating officer into the matter. Since Colonel Houtz is one of the sitting judges on Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA) and a former staff officer with the Marine Corps’ Judge Advocate Division (JAD), the resulting investigation was a whitewash. Colonel Shaw, who committed the UCI, was working directly for Major General Bligh.
The Command Investigation report by Lieutenant Colonel Micah Miller to the Commanding Officer of Headquarters and Support (H&S) Battalion and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, indicates that his investigation did not include the Defense Services Organization (DSO) of which Major Sorenson belongs to.
LtCol Miller’s Command Information Referral Letter stated, “Based on my review of the evidence and the interview I conducted, I have gathered enough information to form my opinions and reach the resulting recommendations.”
The letter continued, “However, it should be noted, based on the nature of the allegations and the intricacies surrounding the determination of the appropriate jurisdiction, I was advised by Defense Services Organization (DSO) that DSO personnel would not be contributing much, if anything, to my initial efforts to investigate a “PAC” complaint. Based on the direction I felt my investigation was heading, I did not feel DSO participation was necessary for me to craft my opinions and reach my recommendations, therefore I did not attempt to interview any DSO personnel.”
In six separate incidents listed in the complaint, Major Hill’s allegations included being the recipient of “rapid fire forceful emails concluding with accusations of making false assurances and abusing the process”. Another allegation was that Major Sorenson “sent a “blast” email which accused Major Hill of improper communications with a represented person”.
Each of the stated complaints seem to be based upon normal conduct between trial counsels and defense counsels for contentious cases, including a case referenced in the investigation letter (US v. Christensen, 2021) where Captain Keagan Riley was the defense counsel and Major Hill was the trial counsel. A formal ethics complaint could result in Captain Riley’s loss of his ability to represent Marines in a court martial.
Attorney Colby Vokey said, “Any defense counsel who has a case against Major Hill, such as Captain Riley, is now worried. If they fight too hard or file the wrong motion or, heaven forbid, allege prosecutorial misconduct, then they know that the government, with the weight of Judge Advocate Division, will go after them.”
“I am not sure how military justice can even function for the Marine Corps on the East Coast. But the other Regional Defense Counsel’s also view this conflict”, added Vokey.
The real issue is that Captain Riley’s supervisor, Major Sorenson, is being targeted for those seemingly innocuous interactions because of the alleged hostile work environment created. It could potentially affect Major Sorenson’s ability to practice law in the Marine Corps.
When Colonel Shaw made his unlawful comments, the government attempted to argue that it was just a hollow statement with no possibility that it could be acted upon, but attorney Colby Vokey says Shaw’s threats are coming to life. Vokey stated, “This is a real threat to DSOs. It goes far beyond what Shaw said and did. This is in fact happening.”
Nevertheless, instead of the investigation being shut down, LtCol Miller’s letter was endorsed by the Commanding Officer of Camp Lejeune’s H&S Battalion as well as the Commanding General of MCIEAST, Camp Lejeune.
Colby Vokey put their decisions into context by saying, “That means the ultimate decision of whether Major Sorensen has somehow committed an ethics violation and whether to report it to his state bar lies with the Rules Council. For the Marine Corps, the Rules Council is one person, the SJA to the Commandant – Major General Bligh.”
Vokey emphasized, “The incestuous nature of all this is disturbing. This is being viewed by all Marine defense counsels (and others) as retaliation for Major Sorensen’s role in bringing the UCI to light and supporting the motion. It has created an intolerable situation where every Marine defense counsel feels pressure and possible conflicts.”
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