Speier, Mullin Introduce Bipartisan I Am Vanessa Guillén Act to Transform the Military’s Response to Sexual Violence and Missing Servicemembers

South San Francisco, CA  September 16, 2020 Press Release

 

Today, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, and Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), along with co-leads Reps. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), John Carter (R-TX), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Pete Olson (R-TX), Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr. (D-TX), Troy Balderson (R-OH), Jason Crow (D-CO), and Will Hurd (R-TX), and 94 additional co-sponsors, introduced the I am Vanessa Guillén Act in honor of the late SPC Vanessa Guillén and the many survivors of military sexual violence who have bravely come forward in the wake of her disappearance and brutal murder. The legislation responds to these resounding calls for change by offering provisions that would revolutionize the military’s response to missing servicemembers and reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault by making sexual harassment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice and moving prosecution decisions of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases out of the chain of command. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate today. This morning, following a meeting with the Guillén family, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a commitment to hold a House floor vote on the I am Vanessa Guillén Act. President Trump previously announced his support for the bill during a White House meeting with the Guillén family.

 

SPC Guillén’s disappearance and brutal murder became the catalyst for long-overdue change when her family refused to let her case be neglected by Army leadership at Fort Hood. The Guillén family supports the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, and Chair Speier is also leading a congressional delegation this weekend to Fort Hood to further investigate matters at the base and speak with servicemembers at all levels about their experiences and how best to accelerate the cultural change that is so urgently needed.

 

Specifically, the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act would:

 

  • Move prosecution decisions on sexual assault and sexual harassment cases outside of the chain of command to an Office of the Chief Prosecutor within each military service;
  • Create a standalone military offense for sexual harassment;
  • Establish trained sexual harassment investigators who are outside of the chain of command of the complainant and the accused;
  • Create a confidential reporting process for sexual harassment that is integrated with DoD’s Catch a Serial Offender database;
  • Require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the military’s procedures for finding missing servicemembers and compare with procedures used by civilian law enforcement and best practices;
  • Require both DoD and GAO to conduct separate evaluations of the military services’ Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) programs; and
  • Establish a process by which servicemembers can make claims for negligence and seek compensatory damages against DoD in the case of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

 

“Military leadership has repeatedly failed to reduce sexual harassment, sexual assault, and violent crime at Fort Hood, one of the worst sites for attacks according to Army officials, and throughout the armed forces,” Chair Speier said. “The endless cycle of harassment, assault, and retaliation for those who speak out reveals the deep roots of a toxic culture we must eradicate so that survivors are taken seriously and treated with respect, and assailants are held accountable. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act would do this by providing survivors independent investigations for both sexual harassment and sexual assault reports and independent charging decisions for courts-martial. It would also make sexual harassment a criminal offense in the military, helping get to the core of an issue that too often leads to violence and destroys careers, and lives. The Guillén family and legions of former and current servicemembers are demanding bold change. Congress must seize this moment and deliver on that demand for change by passing the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act.”

 

“The issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue – it’s an American issue,” Congressman Mullin said. “We must strengthen the military’s ability to protect its most important resource, which is the people who willingly sign-up to protect all Americans. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act will also encourage survivors to come forward to report sexual assaults and sexual harassment and to provide justice. This is about protecting our men and women in uniform and I will keep fighting so no family has to go through what the Guillén family has gone through.”

 

“From the moment I started working with the Guillén family in May, I made it clear I would not stop until we found Vanessa and got justice in her name,” Congresswoman Garcia said. “The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020 is a transformative and comprehensive bill that will help save lives and give our soldiers an avenue to report sexual assault and harassment without fear – a lasting legacy in honor of Vanessa. I want the Guillén family to know that Congress, the Houston region, and the entire world stands with you and we won’t stop until we get justice for Vanessa.”

 

“First and foremost, my heart goes out to the Guillén family, no one should ever have to experience the pain they’ve experienced,” Congressman Carter said. “The men and women that selflessly serve our nation deserve to feel safe to report misconduct and feel confident that their issues will be fairly handled. There is absolutely no place for sexual misconduct in the United States military and we must take these steps to ensure that accountability is realized.”

 

“The unspeakable tragedy of Specialist Vanessa Guillén’s murder has shed new light and revealed to the American public the epidemic of unchecked sexual harassment and assault that too many service members have suffered,” Congresswoman Escobar said. “Specialist Guillén – and all servicemembers – deserve respect and justice, and it’s our obligation to protect those who bravely put their lives on the line for our country. We can’t continue the same approaches that have failed victims. Congress must respond to this moment of reckoning with new solutions to tackle this epidemic and pass the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act.”

 

“The tragedy that befell PFC Vanessa Guillén was horrific and reflects a growing problem in our Armed Forces. Our military members should never fear harassment or violence while defending our nation,” Congressman Olson said. “As a Navy veteran, I’m proud to support the I am Vanessa Guillen Act, which is an important step towards getting justice for PFC Guillén and other service members like her. It ensures there is a stand-alone military offense for sexual harassment and requires the GAO to review how our military processes missing service members in cases of suspected foul play compared to civilian law enforcement. By working together and demanding accountability, we can prevent the next tragedy. Our military must maintain higher standards and we will not be silent on this issue.”

 

“Year after year, we see an increase in reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military and the same statements from military leadership about how unacceptable they are. It’s far past time we take bold action to bring accountability to the system and give survivors support,” Congressman Cisneros said. “In the memory of Specialist Vanessa Guillén, Republicans and Democrats are coming together to make legislative fixes to protect our men and women in uniform. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing the bipartisan I am Vanessa Guillén Act to provide the necessary support and resources for survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military. Our servicemembers and military families deserve to have the peace of mind that they’ll be heard and treated with dignity and respect.”

 

“Ohio is home to thousands of active-duty servicemembers who risk their lives for our nation, and in return, it’s our country’s obligation to ensure their safety,” Congressman Balderson said. “In honor of Vanessa Guillén, this legislation will take important steps to ensure survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military can tell their stories without retribution and seek the justice they deserve.”

 

“As a soldier, I remember going to basic training to learn everything from marksmanship to the chain of command. The military is supposed to train new recruits on the essential tasks of the job, but we still don’t do nearly enough to address sexual assault in the ranks. We need to make sure we are creating a system and culture of accountability in the military to protect our women and men in uniform. For too long, sexual assault and violence has gone unaddressed,” Congressman Crow said. “The military failed Vanessa Guillén but I refuse to let Congress fail her or her family. It is Congress that decides what kind of military we have and now it is Congress’ responsibility to step up and pass the I AM Vanessa Guillén to protect our women and men in uniform.”

 

“We must work to ensure what happened to Vanessa Guillén never happens again,” Congressman Hurd said. “The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020 will protect soldiers like Vanessa by ensuring independent investigations occur in assault and harassment cases. This will better safeguard our soldiers from retaliation and help prevent these atrocious acts from ever happening in the first place.”

 

“Vanessa Guillén’s story makes painfully clear the need for a better response to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military,” Senator Hirono said. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act knocks down barriers to reporting sexual harassment and sexual assault and directly addresses the culture that protects the perpetrators of these crimes. It’s time to make a system that respects and protects survivors.”

 

The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act will fundamentally reform reporting and investigation of sexual harassment in the military and transform prosecution of sexual harassment and assault by empowering an independent prosecutor, within each military service, to bring charges. The bill will also allow servicemembers who were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted to pursue monetary claims against DoD and will also require a comprehensive GAO review of the military’s sexual harassment and assault prevention and response programs, as well as the military’s procedures for responding to missing servicemembers.

 

Fact Sheet: I am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020 Section 1: Short Title – “I am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020”

Section 2: Modification of Authority to Determine to Proceed to Trial by Court-Martial on Charges Involving Sex-Related Offenses

 

Under current law, charging decisions for offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) are made by commanding officers, who must review the results of a criminal investigation and then decide whether to convene a court-martial to prosecute those charges. In the case of a sex-related offense, such as sexual assault, the commander with court-martial convening authority must be at a rank of O–6 (a captain in the Navy or a colonel in the Army, Air Force, or Marines) or higher. Commanders are primarily responsible for the military readiness of their units—they carry concern for the welfare of the individuals under their command, but that concern also includes the suspect. Commanders may also be concerned with the professional reputation of their units and the impacts a public court-martial may have on that reputation. Leaving prosecution decisions to the commander creates a conflict of interest and may discourage survivors from reporting an assault, especially in cases where a toxic command environment contributed to a climate where sexual violence is tolerated.

 

This section would require each military department to establish an Office of the Chief Prosecutor. Charging decisions for sex-related offenses, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, would be transferred from the commander to the service’s chief prosecutor. If the chief prosecutor determines not to convene a court-martial, the commander would continue to have discretion over a range of administrative sanctions, including punitive discharges and rank reduction. The military services would be required to implement this new process 2 years after enactment.

 

Section 3: Punitive Article on Sexual Harassment and Related Investigation Matters

 

Under current law, sexual harassment may be charged under four separate UCMJ articles:

  • Article 92 (prohibiting violation of lawful general orders),
  • Article 93 (prohibiting maltreatment of a subordinate),
  • Article 133 (misconduct by commissioned officers, cadets, and midshipmen), and
  • Article 134 (general disorder).

While sexual harassment is typically addressed through administrative sanctions, such as a formal reprimand, assignment of additional duties, reduction in rank, or a punitive discharge, in some cases the seriousness of the conduct justifies criminal charges. The Department of Defense (DoD) has recommended establishing a standalone UCMJ article for sexual harassment to send a clear message to the force that such behavior is unacceptable and may result in severe consequences. In addition, a standalone offense would enable the services to more effectively track UCMJ actions related to sexual harassment. Subsection (a) of this section would establish a standalone sexual harassment offense within the UCMJ, incorporating the updated definition of sexual harassment from the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act (H.R.2148).

 

This section also reforms the procedure for investigating sexual harassment. Under current policy, the military uses command investigations for sexual harassment allegations against military servicemembers. The investigation is typically conducted by another servicemember in the unit who has little or no training or experience in investigating sexual harassment. Because sexual harassment is most common in a command environment that tolerates that behavior, internal command investigators are particularly problematic. Abysmal reporting rates help demonstrate that many servicemembers do not trust their commands to address their harassment. To improve the quality of investigations and increase trust in the system, subsection (b) of this section would require the military services to establish a process to conduct independent investigations of sexual harassment allegations against military service members using trained investigators within 2 years of enactment of this act. The services could use DoD civilian or military investigators, as long as the investigators are not within the chain of command of the complainant. The new, independent investigation process would be required to meet the same timelines as under current policy: initiating an investigation within 72 hours of the compliant and completing the investigation within 14 days of the date that the investigation commences, with a final report due within 20 days of the date that the investigation commences. Not later than 9 months after enactment, each service secretary would be required to report to Congress on preparation to implement this new independent investigation process.

 

Section 4: Confidential Reporting of Sexual Harassment – included in the House-passed NDAA (H.R.6395) by voice vote.

 

Under current policy, military service members may make three types of sexual harassment reports:

  • A formal report, which results in an investigation and report;
  • An informal report, in which a Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) official, commander, or other official attempts to resolve the complaint without a formal investigation; and
  • An anonymous

In the first two options, the identity of the complainant is known to the commander and potentially other officials. In an anonymous report, the identity of the complainant is not known by anyone other than the complainant. Anonymous reports may result in investigations and/or action, though potential actions may be limited by the inability to contact the complainant to obtain more information. There is no option for reporting sexual harassment analogous to restricted reports of sexual assault, in which a complaint is filed; the complainant’s identity is known to SHARP officials but kept confidential from all others, including the commander; the complainant is given the option to participate in the military’s Catch a Serial Offender program, which allows the complainant to be notified if other servicemembers allege a sexual assault by the same person; and the complainant can convert to an unrestricted report at any time.

 

This section would establish a confidential reporting option for sexual harassment that would allow a victim to file a sexual harassment complaint with a SHARP official that would be confidential (that is, not disclosed to the commander or anyone else), participate in the military’s Catch a Serial Offender program, be notified if the harasser is accused by another service member of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and have the option to convert to a formal complaint at any time.

 

 

Section 5: Authorization of Claims by Members of the Armed Forces Against the United States that Arise from Sex-Related Offense

 

Under current law, a civilian who is sexually assaulted or sexually harassed by a military servicemember or DoD employee has the ability to file a claim for monetary damages against DoD, but a servicemember who is sexually assaulted or harassed by another servicemember or DoD employee has no such recourse. As part of the enacted FY 2020 NDAA, Congress created an administrative claims process to address a similar disparity for injuries caused by medical malpractice. Under that new provision, codified at 10 USC § 2733a, military servicemembers who are harmed due to medical error at a military medical treatment facility may file claims for damages through an administrative process established and operated by DoD. This section would establish a similar administrative claims process for military servicemembers who experience personal injury or death due to a sex-related offense committed by a member of the armed forces or a DoD employee, or the negligent failure to prevent or investigate such an offense.

 

Section 6: Reports on Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Programs of the Armed Forces

 

This section would require DoD and the Government Accountability Office to conduct separate reviews of the military’s sexual harassment and assault response programs. Within 180 days of enactment, DoD would be required to evaluate alternative structures for SHARP, including using civilians, contractors, and servicemembers within a dedicated military occupational specialty, as well as any other structure which the Secretary of Defense considers appropriate. Within 1 year of enactment, GAO would be required to assess the impacts and efficacy of the SHARP programs of the military departments and make such recommendations as the comptroller general considers appropriate to improve these programs.

 

Section 7: GAO Study of Members Absent Without Leave or on Unauthorized Absence – included in the House-passed NDAA (H.R.6395) by voice vote

 

This section would require GAO to study procedures used by the military departments to respond to missing servicemembers and make recommendations to improve these procedures. The GAO review would be required to cover the military services’ guidelines for distinguishing between common cases and cases that might involve foul play in in which the servicemember may be in danger, the guidelines for cooperation between the military and other law enforcement agencies, the use of social and traditional media in conjunction with such cases, military resources available for such cases and any shortfalls in such resources, how the procedures used vary by those used by other law enforcement, and best practices for responding to and investigating such cases.

 

The 103 cosponsors the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act are: Reps. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), John Carter (R-TX), Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr. (D-CA), Jason Crow (D-CO), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Andy Kim (D-NJ), Pete Olson (R-TX), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Lori Trahan (D-MA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Troy Balderson (R-OH), Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), Filemon Vela (D-TX), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D-VA), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), John Garamendi (D-CA), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Debra Haaland (D-NM), Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Mike Thompson (D-CA), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX), James P. McGovern (D-MA), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), Lori Trahan (D-MA), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), Albio Sires (D-NJ), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Annie Kuster (D-NH), Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Max Rose (D-NY), Marc Veasey (D-TX), Kendra S. Horn (D-OK), Kathy Castor (D-FL), André Carson (D-IN), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Norma J. Torres (D-CA), Ro Khanna (D-CA), J. Luis Correa (D-CA), Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ), Abigail D. Spanberger (D-VA), Stephen F. Lynch (D-MA), John B. Larson (D-CT), Debbie Lesko (D-AZ), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Chuy García (D-IL), Joe Courtney (D-CT), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Julia Brownley (D-CA), Lois Frankel (D-FL), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Jim Cooper (D-TN), Danny K. Davis (D-IL), Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA), Gwen Moore (D-WI), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Charlie Crist (D-FL), Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Dan Kildee (D-MI), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Alma Adams (D-NC), Brian Higgins (D-NY), Cheri Bustos (D-IL), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), TJ Cox (D-CA), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), David Trone (D-MD), Dwight Evans (D-PA), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Brendan F. Boyle (D-PA), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), Susan Wild (D-PA), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Mark Takano (D-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Katherine Clark (D-MA), Grace Meng (D-NY), Denny Heck (D-WA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Steve Cohen (D-TN), and Linda T. Sánchez (D-CA).

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