By Brenda Flanagan
It’s a profession dominated by white male officers — that, reflected in the audience drawn from New Jersey’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. And during today’s state budget hearing, its top general fielded allegations of racism and discrimination in his own office.
“Minorities — African-Americans, Hispanics — who felt they were passed over for promotion due to racism. Is this something you’re prepared to talk about?” asked Senator Sandra Cunningham.
Adjutant General Michael Cunniff acknowledged the claims, said they’re under investigation by the Inspector General and other agencies.
“I’m confident, quite frankly, they’ll be unfounded. We have a small number of people who are unhappy with how their careers are ending,” Cunniff said.
“A thorough investigation should be taking place,” said Retired Colonel Nelson Mellitz.
Mellitz — with the state Vets’ Services Council — said these same officers came to him with complaints of workplace bias. He said they’re men who fought and served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who described a deeply troubling, hostile workplace while serving back here, at home.
“Senior officers, been in the military for a long period of time, and they are very honorable people,” Mellitz said. He indicated this is not some kind of office infighting.
The Star-Ledger first reported the story about cronyism amongst Gen. Cunniff and his staff. Cunniff oversees a $97 million budget and a workforce of some 8,600 guard members who performed heroic service during Superstorm Sandy. Senators raised concerns about diversity in the National Guard.
“The concern is always when they come before us, we don’t see a lot of diversity and we don’t see a lot of women and that’s always the question — is why not?” asked Cunningham.
As for the officers’ complaints:
“They’re allegations. They’re being fully investigated and I’m convinced we will be exonerated. That’s not a problem in the New Jersey National Guard,” said Cunniff. He said there’s no problem with any kind of racism or favoritism.
The Guard says it’s investigating the complaints. Lawmakers say they plan to follow up. No response from the governor’s office.