For the first time in the Illinois Senate race, GOP nominee Rep. Mark Kirk is on the defensive after being caught claiming a Navy award he did not earn, Intelligence Officer of the Year in 1999.
Both of Chicago's daily newspapers ran editorials on Wednesday blasting Kirk, a commander in the Navy Reserves since 1989, for embellishing his service record. Kirk's rival is Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer who never served in the military.
Giannoulias had been facing criticism from Kirk over the failure of his family-owned Broadway Bank, where Giannoulias once worked as a loan officer. The flap over the award takes the spotlight off Giannoulias and throws it on Kirk, whose record is being scrubbed for the first time in his public career by the press, Web-based researchers and Giannoulias and his allies.
Kirk has been claiming the Intelligence Officer of the Year honor for years on his website, in congressional testimony, in an ad made for the 2010 Senate race and in questionnaires submitted to the editorial boards of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.
The Sun-Times headlined its editorial on the matter, "Kirk's trying to dodge blame for false claims."
"This, unfortunately, is a lesson Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk has not learned," the editorial said. "Kirk, who has served 21 years in the Naval Reserve, is getting hammered -- deservedly so -- for making himself out to be the combat vet and James Bond he never was. But rather than taking full responsibility for several false claims, he's blaming everything and everyone from a faulty memory to his Democratic opponent, Alexi Giannoulias. People do make mistakes. But so many embellishments over so many years can't be explained away as inadvertent slipups."
The Chicago Tribune editorial about Kirk is titled "Pants on Fire," and states:
"Kirk has never won the Intelligence Officer of the Year, awarded annually by top Navy officials. But he has made that claim for more than a decade -- in speeches, in campaign materials submitted to the Tribune and other news organizations and in the biography on his Web site. Now that he's been called on this fib, Kirk wants to shrug it off as little more than a typo."
There are other Kirk embellishments. He once bragged, "I command the war room of the Pentagon." While on reserve duty, Kirk has been stationed at the National Military Command Center. The person who runs that war room is usually a general with one or two stars. And Kirk has also dropped the word "combat" from his claim on his congressional website about "combat service in Kosovo."
There is also another development: It turns out that Kirk was not candid in explaining why he went public last Thursday about the unearned award he claimed. On his website, Kirk said that day: "Upon a recent review of my records, I found that an award listed in my official biography was misidentified as 'Intelligence Officer of the Year.' In fact . . . I was the recipient of the Rufus Taylor Intelligence Unit of the Year award for outstanding support provided during Operation Allied Force."
But there is more to the story than that. Kirk's congressional office was tipped Thursday by the Navy that reporters were investigating his claim; indeed, the Washington Post came out with a story about Kirk on Saturday. Navy Cmdr. Danny Hernandez told the Chicago Sun-Times
on Tuesday that the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs on Capitol Hill was notified about the inquiries so they could pass the information to Kirk's office. That is a Navy courtesy, Hernandez said, "for all congressmen" when reporters call with questions.
Kirk spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski, addressing why the five-term congressman didn't reply more fully, said in a statement: "Even though this issue is very distinct from developments concerning Dick Blumenthal's military record, the news out of Connecticut resulted in an internal review of Mark Kirk's military record and his biographical information in advance of any contact from any entity outside the campaign. While this review was ongoing, Mr. Kirk was contacted by Navy personnel. During the review process, Congressman Kirk's staff identified an inconsistency and, in a voluntary and transparent manner, the Congressman corrected the record immediately."
The New York Times last month revealed that Connecticut Attorney General -- and U.S. Senate candidate -- Richard Blumenthal said in a 2008 speech that he had served in Vietnam when, in fact, he did not. After getting a series of draft deferrals, Blumenthal enlisted in the Marine Reserve in 1970 and served stateside. Polls show that Blumenthal has not been seriously damaged by the episode.
The difference between Kirk and Blumenthal is that Kirk is using his military record as a centerpiece of his campaign and an integral part of his message. Kirk has an unusual arrangement with the Pentagon. Reservists in Congress are not typically deployed, but the Defense Department has granted Kirk's request for exceptions, the Sun-Times reported, and the congressman has been to Afghanistan twice for brief periods.
Kirk seemed to further complicate the situation by saying he confused the Intelligence Officer of the Year award -- something the Navy officially issues -- with the Rufus Taylor award, which is not an official Navy commendation. Kirk has won other honors, including the Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, and the National Defense Service Medal.
On Wednesday, playing unaccustomed damage control, Kirk's campaign released a statement from Capt. Clay Fearnow, a retired Navy officer who was Kirk's commanding officer in Aviano, Italy, when he served in the Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 209. According to Navy records, Kirk served in that squadron between Oct. 1, 1998 and Jan. 2, 2001.
Said Fearnow, "As a retired Navy Captain and Mark Kirk's commanding officer during Operation Allied Force, there are two things that have deeply troubled me since I read the Washington Post's story about Mark's intelligence officer award.
"First, the complete lack of a benefit of the doubt -- the idea that someone could make an honest mistake has become so foreign that the immediate assumption has become -- you misrepresented or worse you lied. In Mark's case neither is factual.
"And second, that an honest mistake related to the identification of a military award is the same as pretending to be in Vietnam when you were not. This also doesn't apply to Mark Kirk."