Air Force general pleads guilty to adultery, dereliction of duty

by Vern Evans

A two-star Air Force general pleaded guilty Monday to adultery and dereliction of duty for pursuing an unprofessional relationship as the rare court-martial of a high-ranking officer got underway at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, the Air Force’s former pilot training boss, entered a guilty plea ahead of opening arguments in the case, an Air Force spokesperson and a spokesperson for Stewart’s defense team confirmed to Air Force Times.

He initially pleaded not guilty to all charges during a hearing in March. The defense team’s spokesperson declined to answer why Stewart opted to switch his plea on multiple charges.

Stewart maintains he is not guilty of allegedly sexually assaulting an unnamed woman and allegedly taking control of an airplane within 12 hours of consuming alcohol during a work trip to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in April 2023.

Stewart allegedly penetrated a woman’s vulva with his mouth and penis without her consent on multiple occasions while visiting Altus, a training hub for airmen across the air mobility enterprise, according to a charge sheet obtained by Air Force Times. His attorneys have contended that while he did have sex with the woman, it was consensual.

Stewart was fired from his job leading 19th Air Force, which manages a large swath of airman training programs, in May 2023 amid a misconduct investigation by Air Education and Training Command boss Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson. He was charged in September 2023 with two counts of sexual assault, two counts of dereliction of duty, one count of conduct unbecoming of an officer, and one count of extramarital sexual conduct.

In January, the two-star asked Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to allow him to retire in lieu of facing military trial. That request was denied in February, paving the way for the second time in Air Force history that a general officer has stood trial, as well as the second time that a general has faced court-martial for sexual assault.

The case stalled last week over jury selection. Stewart opted to be tried by a panel of his peers, requiring the service to assemble an eight-person jury comprised of Air Force officers who outrank him or who pinned on a second star before him — limiting the pool of potential jurors to 68 airmen. The Air Force brought 18 jurors in for questioning before seating a panel on Saturday, AETC spokesperson Capt. Scarlett Trujillo said Monday.

Stewart faces a reprimand, fine, dismissal, forfeiture of pay and up to 18 months confinement on the adultery and dereliction of duty charges. If found guilty on all charges, he faces a minimum sentence of dismissal or dishonorable discharge, or up to 66 years in confinement and forfeiture of pay.

Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley, the former Air Force Research Laboratory commander who in April 2022 became the first general officer to face court-martial for sexual misconduct, retired as a colonel in June 2023 after being convicted by a military judge of abusive sexual conduct for forcibly kissing his brother’s wife. An appeal with the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals is pending.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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