(Adds comment from Pentagon spokesman, paragraphs 10-11)
By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, N.C., March 20 (Reuters) - A U.S. Army general who admitted to an adulterous sexual affair and other improper relationships with junior female officers was spared jail and dismissal from the service on Thursday, a sentence critics decried as a failure of military justice.
The case that derailed the 27-year Army career of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair ended with a reprimand and $20,000 in forfeited pay as punishment after a plea deal in the rare court-martial of a top officer absolved him of sexual assault charges.
The one-star general's defense team said they were grateful for the sentence ordered by the trial judge, Colonel James Pohl. They argued that Sinclair was unfairly portrayed as a sex offender when he was guilty of far lesser wrongdoing.
"The system has worked," a relieved Sinclair, a married father of two sons, said after court in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "All I want to do now is hug my kids and be with my wife."
Advocates of military justice reform said the case proved the armed forces still tolerate sexual misconduct in their ranks despite political pressure from Congress and the president to curb it. They said the lenient sentence for Sinclair would have a chilling effect on other victims of abuse.
"He made out like a bandit," said Eugene Fidell, a professor of military justice at Yale Law School. "This is a baffling denouement to a disturbing case."
The sentencing coincided with another high-profile military trial. A judge found a Naval Academy football player not guilty on Thursday in the sexual assault of a female midshipman at an alcohol-fueled off-campus party in April 2012.
Sinclair, 51, was a rising star in the Army and a veteran of five combat tours before criminal charges two years ago saw the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division stripped of his duties in southern Afghanistan.
A female captain 17 years his junior said she and the general had a three-year illicit affair, during which she alleged he had sex with her in a parking lot in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Arizona, threatened to kill her if she exposed the relationship, and forced her to perform oral sex when she tried to break it off.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Defense Department spokesman, declined direct comment on the specifics of the case, but noted the Pentagon is "always concerned about victim confidence."
"This is a serious issue," Kirby told a news briefing. "No one's taken their eye off of it. So we always have those concerns and we're always trying to get better at it."
Sinclair admitted to adultery and mistreating the captain but maintained that the affair was consensual. The case began to unravel over questions about the woman's credibility, and the defense vowed to further undermine her at trial, but then the proceedings were halted earlier this month.
After a finding by Pohl that politics appeared to have improperly influenced the Army's decision to reject an earlier plea offer by Sinclair, the general this week pleaded guilty to numerous offenses in exchange for charges of coercive sex acts and indecent conduct being dismissed.
The plea bargain removed the threat of possible life in prison.
Instead, Sinclair faced a maximum of 18 months in jail for inappropriate relationships with junior female officers, possessing pornography on his laptop while deployed in Afghanistan, misusing his government credit card to visit his mistress, using derogatory language to refer to female officers, and obstructing the military investigation into his conduct.
The judge handed down the non-jail sentence with no explanation. Prosecutors, who had asked for Sinclair to be dismissed by the Army and had said he abused his power and used it to exploit women, had no comment.
Sinclair's lawyers said the general planned to submit his retirement paperwork and could still be demoted by the Army as part of that process. He also will reimburse the government for about $4,000 in improper credit card expenses.
Critics said the fact that the general would be allowed to retire on his own accord rather than getting pushed out showed that an overhaul of the military justice system was needed.
They said charging decisions in sexual assault cases should be made by independent military prosecutors rather than top commanders, a proposal voted down by the U.S. Senate earlier this month.
The Senate passed a measure, still subject to House approval, that would strengthen prosecutors' role in advising commanders on whether to go to court-martial and eliminate the "good soldier" defense, which allowed courts to reduce the sentence of offenders with strong military records.
"Today's sentencing is beyond disappointing, it is a travesty and a serious misstep for the Army," said retired Navy Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett, a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Venable LLP who represented Sinclair's main accuser.
"The slap on the wrist and 'pat on the back' for being a so-called 'good soldier' points to the importance of Congressional action," Barnett said.
Sinclair's lead attorney, civilian lawyer Richard Scheff, rebuffed the criticism.
"Critics of this ruling weren't in court every day, haven't examined the evidence and have no idea what they're talking about," he said. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, D.C.; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone, James Dalgleish, Tom Brown and Gunna Dickson)