May 13, 2008 – Vice Adm. John Stufflebeem seemed to have it all. He rose from deck seaman to a Naval Academy football star whose punting prowess earned him the nickname “Boomer” and a part-time practice gig with the Detroit Lions.
He opted to fly jets instead, logging more than 4,000 hours in several different aircraft, won plum assignments and became a Navy star. As a commander, Stufflebeem was a military aide to President George H.W. Bush, and after rising to flag rank, was the public face of the Afghanistan war as he briefed reporters from the podium at the Pentagon while serving as deputy director of global operations on the Joint Staff.
He went on to command 6th Fleet and, last year, became director of the Navy Staff. A fourth star was all but assured.
And then it all began to unravel.
In January, an anonymous letter revealed an 18-year-old secret that Stufflebeem thought was long buried and forgotten. The letter accused Stufflebeem of carrying on an eight-month affair with a female State Department staffer while the two were assigned to the White House in 1990.
Stufflebeem, then a 37-year-old commander, pretended to be a widower, telling the woman that his wife had died of breast cancer and that he was raising his two children on his own, according to the Inspector General’s report, obtained by Navy Times through the Freedom of Information Act.
In fact, Stufflebeem was still living with his wife at the time.
The report says Stufflebeem had sex with the State Department staffer in sleeping quarters in the White House basement and when the two traveled abroad with the White House travel team. The two engaged in “passionate kissing” in a car parked near the White House grounds, and he even sexually propositioned the woman’s close friend on a trip to London, the report says.
When his mistress, who is not named in the report, unexpectedly called his house, Stufflebeem told her that the woman who answered the phone — his wife — was his children’s nanny. And when their relationship became a distraction at work, he admitted the inappropriate relationship to his superiors and was relieved from his post, without the usual hail and farewell ceremony or end-of-tour award for such a position.
Somehow, however, that fact never caught up to Stufflebeem after his return to the Navy. Although accusations of an inappropriate relationship cost him his job at the White House, he was able to escape further scrutiny as he climbed ever higher in the Navy hierarchy.
But with the January accusations, Stufflebeem’s story began to crumble in the eyes of investigators. Increasingly skeptical, they concluded he provided “false and misleading testimony” when he:
• Lied by saying that the relationship wasn’t sexual and that they only kissed once.
• Lied about the circumstances of his dismissal from the White House Military Office.
• Lied when he told investigators he couldn’t remember the woman’s name.
Based on those findings, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead fired Stufflebeem as director of the Navy Staff on March 21. At admiral’s mast April 18, he received a punitive letter of reprimand. A 39-year Navy career was in ruins.
Stufflebeem, reached at his home by Navy Times on May 7, said he never intentionally misled anybody about the affair. In letters he sent to the IG, he said he had “spent a lot of time trying to forget who she was.”
Later, in a prepared statement to Navy Times, he wrote: “It is regrettable that an investigation into an 18-year-old accusation has caused embarrassment to the Navy and my family. It was never my intent to harm or deceive either of them.”
Stufflebeem has put in paperwork requesting retirement.
‘She was gaga’
The woman in the IG report, referred to only as “Jane Doe,” could not be reached for comment. According to the IG, she told investigators she met Stufflebeem over drinks during a work-related trip overseas. During a drinking version of truth or dare, he told her and a group of White House staffers that his wife had died years before of breast cancer. He later asked if he could come to her room to give her a back rub, and that night, they had sex for the first time.
She said she did not see him regularly but described one encounter when she came to the White House to meet Bush coming off his helicopter.
“[Stufflebeem’s] holding a briefcase and passes it off to a White House Communications Agency guy,” the woman said. “So then we went downstairs into the basement to the room where the aides sleep when they stay the night, and we had sex, and we took a shower. I think that was like June or July because it was very hot, so he had to take a shower.”
She described another time when she called Stufflebeem’s home at Bolling Air Force Base because he was late for a date. She said Stufflebeem had told her that a “nanny” babysat his two daughters when he was away.
“So I called and talked to [his wife] and I asked where he was, and she said he was on an overnight training mission or something, so he did wind up coming to spend the night that night. I told him I called the house. He said, ‘Oh really? What did she say?’ And I just relayed the story and it all seemed, you know — it didn’t seem to make him nervous or anything at the time, looking back.”
And when the woman saw Stufflebeem’s wedding band, he told her he wore it because his two daughters were overwhelmed by his wife’s death and did not want him to take it off.
The woman said she found out Stufflebeem was married when her former supervisor asked her if she was dating him. When she said yes, the supervisor told her that he was married.
The former supervisor told IG investigators the woman was shocked.
“Here she was, a little girl, first year in Washington, working with the White House, and he was a naval aide, and she was gaga,” said the former supervisor, whose name also was redacted from the version of the report obtained by Navy Times. “I thought she was going to dissolve into the ground. I mean, I have never seen somebody so surprised.”
Investigators say the woman told Stufflebeem’s military supervisors at the White House, which include his boss at the time, retired Army Lt. Gen. Richard Trefry. That officer talked to the chief of naval operations and the chief of naval personnel. Together, they agreed that Stufflebeem should be reassigned immediately to avoid embarrassing Bush, who was distracted by the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Investigators say Stufflebeem received no written reprimand but was confronted by Trefry with the rumors about his affair. Trefry said Stufflebeem stood during the meeting and was told to clean out his desk before other workers arrived.
“You’ve not only let me down, but you’ve let the president down, and you’ve let your wife and daughters down,” Trefry recalled saying, according to the report.
Stufflebeem then wrote two letters: one to Bush explaining that he needed to leave the White House staff because of family difficulties and another to his Navy superiors asking to be reassigned.
Bush responded to Stufflebeem’s letter with his own, saying that he had been “partially briefed” as to the reason Stufflebeem left the White House staff, thanking him for his service. The report does not make clear the exact details of the briefing Bush received.
“You are missed already. Thank you for your letter written from the heart. I have been partially briefed on your departure. You are right to have family as the primary concern. You have a fine career ahead, and quite obviously, I want to help that career along for you have served here with distinction.”
Bush wrote a second letter to Navy superiors saying Stufflebeem should be promoted as soon as possible.
The report concluded that any evidence of Stufflebeem’s firing from the White House job didn’t follow him as he rejoined the Navy and moved up the ladder.
The woman told investigators that Stufflebeem apologized for lying to her.
“‘I’m very sorry,’” the woman quoted him as saying. “‘I’m married. I didn’t know how long this charade could go on.’”
Stufflebeem was reassigned to the Pentagon shortly afterward.
A story unravels
Within weeks after interviewing Stufflebeem, the IG sent him a “tentative conclusion” letter dated Feb. 15, in which it accused him of giving “false and misleading testimony” about the affair and his time at the White House.
Stufflebeem fired back Feb. 22, expressing disappointment that they would impugn his character and insisting that he never had sex with the woman.
“I find it extremely regrettable, in a case that has such far-reaching implications for my career, that you have chosen to question my integrity based on less than completely reliable evidence,” he wrote. “I have been placed in the untenable situation of defending myself against allegations that exist primarily in hearsay and fading memory.”
He continued: “I would not knowingly give false or misleading testimony, as it would run counter to the primary ethical value and character by which I have lived throughout my career as a Naval Officer.”
Stufflebeem also nitpicked several of the statements made by his former bosses and colleagues, and called it a “glaring omission” that investigators hadn’t interviewed the woman.
So they did. And she backed up everyone else’s story.
At mast, Stufflebeem was found guilty of Article 107 — making a false official statement — by Adm. Kirkland Donald, director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, who read the IG investigation and endorsed the full report.
Now Stufflebeem is waiting for his retirement to be approved. A senior Navy official said he likely won’t retire as a three-star, since he did not complete three years in that grade. Stufflebeem automatically reverted to two-star when he was fired from his three-star billet.
The senior official said if Stufflebeem had told the IG the truth about the affair, he probably would not have advanced but would have avoided nonjudicial punishment and been able to stay in the Navy. That’s because the five-year statute of limitations on adultery has long since expired.
When investigators asked whether he had been held accountable by military authorities for his relationship with the woman, Stufflebeem said he had not been by military superiors, but had been in his personal life.
“My wife held me accountable,” he told investigators, adding that he and his wife had undergone marital counseling for the strain caused by the White House relationship. The two are still married, he said. “I held myself accountable. And it took me a long time to come around to beg God for forgiveness for what had been going on in my life, and this just contributed to it.
“So I have had a great 18-year career since I left the White House,” he said in a letter in response to the report. “If this is the end of it, then I still leave a rewarded individual, thankful for the blessings that I have had.”