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Marine who criticized Obama says hearing board ignored law

April 10, 2012 | 12:52 pm

Sgt. Gary Stein

The Marine sergeant facing discharge because of critical comments about President Obama says the board that recommended his dismissal ignored the law and instead relied on "personal opinion."

"I believe it was more based on personal opinion on the three members than it was based on the legalities of the case," Sgt. Gary Stein told CNN in an interview Tuesday. "They denied four expert witnesses that were there to talk about the legalities.... They didn't even want to hear or take written testimony from them."

After a lengthy hearing Thursday, the Administrative Separation Board at Camp Pendleton voted 3-0 to recommend that Stein be ousted and given an other-than-honorable discharge. Those decisions are up to Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, commanding officer of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

Stein, 26, a nine-year veteran including deployment to Iraq, had been recommended for dismissal and an other-than-honorable discharge by his commander for comments posted on four Facebook pages.

In his postings, Stein called Obama a coward and an enemy, vowed not to salute him and called for his defeat in this year's election. One of the websites was an Armed Forces Tea Party page on Facebook that was created by Stein.

Stein's civilian lawyers are seeking to have his discharge blocked in federal court on grounds that his 1st Amendment rights are being violated by the Marine Corps. A hearing is set for Friday in San Diego federal court.

Gary Kreep, a lawyer with the conservative U.S. Justice Foundation, told CNN that if the court in San Diego does not "protect the rights of Sgt. Stein," the case will be appealed to the 9th Circuit.

Stein said that while his words "were somewhat tasteless," he feels he was within the Department of Defense guidelines about service members making political statements. The American Civil Liberties Union has joined Stein's lawsuit seeking to block his discharge.

If Yoo accepts the separation board's recommendation, Stein could be dismissed before his enlistment is set to end in July. An other-than-honorable discharge could make him ineligible for veterans benefits.

Last week, as Stein's lawyers sought unsuccessfully to block the separation board hearing, Kreep said he suspects the Obama administration is trying to punish Stein because of his conservative views, including calling for a Republican to defeat Obama.

"My suspicion is that someone in the White House bureaucracy watching social media saw this [Stein's website] and said, 'We're going to nail this s.o.b.," Kreep said.

In the wake of the board's decision to recommend that Stein be dismissed because of his Facebook comments, the Marine Corps is preparing to ask the Department of Defense for clarification about what service members can say on social media sites.

The separation board -- a lieutenant colonel, a major and a sergeant-major -- agreed with Marine lawyers who said Stein had violated rules against involvement in partisan politics and making disparaging remarks about the commander-in-chief. But Stein's military and civilian lawyers assert those rules are vague and possibly not suited to the Internet era.


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--Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Sgt. Gary Stein leaves federal court last week in San Diego. Credit: Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune