Army Decides To Court-Martial Sgt. Major of the Army Gene McKinney, the Army's Top Enlisted Soldier, on Sexual Misconduct ChargesBy ROBERT BURNS

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Army has decided to court-martial Sgt. Maj. of the Army Gene McKinney, its top enlisted soldier, on sexual misconduct charges resulting from accusations of harassment and assault by six servicewomen.

McKinney, a 29-year veteran, is expected to enter a plea at an arraignment within a few days. He has strongly denied the allegations against him and accused the Army of racial bias. McKinney is black; all six of his accusers are white.

No trial date was set.

The case against McKinney, which started with sexual misconduct accusations last February by a former aide, retired Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster, has been a source of great embarrassment for the Army. The service has struggled with a string of sexual harassment and abuse cases in recent months; this summer an independent panel concluded that sexual harassment was widespread in the Army and that its leaders were to blame for letting it persist.

The decision to take McKinney to trial in a general court-martial was announced Wednesday by Maj. Gen. Robert F. Foley, commanding general of the Army Military District of Washington. The trial is to be held at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Foley could have dropped all charges, sought nonjudicial punishment of McKinney or sent the case back for reconsideration by lower officers.

Foley referred 20 counts of misconduct to the court-martial. Two other counts _ one of maltreatment of a subordinate, the other of assault by battery _ were dismissed earlier by a reviewing officer who had recommended Foley order a court-martial.

If convicted on all counts McKinney could face a maximum of 56 years in prison, the loss of all pay and benefits, dishonorable discharge from the Army and reduction to the lowest enlisted rank.

He has been suspended from his duties as sergeant major of the Army and is assigned to nearby Fort Myer, Va., where he has been working on his legal defense. Now that he faces a court-martial, the Army might remove him from his post and appoint a replacement.

After the initial allegations became public, McKinney asked the Army to allow him to retire without loss of pay or rank. While it is technically possible that Army Secretary Togo West could still approve that request before McKinney's arraignment, it appeared highly unlikely.

Charles Gittins, McKinney's civilian defense attorney, said in a telephone interview broadcast by MSNBC that he and McKinney were disappointed, but that the court-martial decision was no surprise.

``I think it would be very difficult for a convening authority not to send a case to trial after having spent more than $100,000 investigating it, and having six women make allegations against the sergeant major of the Army, regardless of whether or not the convening authority believed the allegations,'' he said.

McKinney will plead innocent at his arraignment, Gittins said. ``There's never been any doubt about that. He's not guilty.''

Gittins had said earlier that if a court-martial were ordered he would file a motion detailing cases in which Army general officers accused of the same activity alleged against McKinney were not threatened with prosecution. He said the officers were allowed to retire with full benefits.

Earlier this week, Gittins filed a motion denouncing the Army's initial report from McKinney's lengthy preliminary hearing as ``flimsy and superficial.''

The two counts against McKinney that were dismissed were among three charges brought by Hoster, who had been McKinney's public affairs adviser, Clark said. The one remaining count stemming from her allegations is indecent assault.

The first of six women to accuse McKinney, Hoster testified that during a 1996 trip to Hawaii, he came to her hotel room, lifted her up and kissed her.

Hoster's attorney, Susan Barnes, said Wednesday her client was ``perfectly well satisfied'' that the case was moving toward trial.

After Hoster told her story in public last February, other accusers came forward.

Sgt. Christine Roy was the only one to allege that McKinney had sex with her. She said she reluctantly gave in on Oct. 30, 1996, when she was almost eight months pregnant.

Among the 20 counts for which McKinney is to be tried are one count of adultery, three counts of soliciting a female sailor and one count of soliciting a female soldier; one count of assault on a commissioned officer; and two counts of wrongfully impeding the criminal investigation of his actions.

The alleged misconduct occurred between 1994 and 1997.

As recently as Oct. 1, McKinney publicly asserted his innocence. During an interview on CBS' ``Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel,'' McKinney said he would not accept any deal with the military if it forced him to make any admissions.

``I am not pleading guilty to anything,'' he said. ``I continue to tell you that I am innocent of all these allegations and charges.''

Gittins refused to discuss any defense strategy, but did say it will be aggressive and thorough. ``You can be sure and the Army can be sure that if it's legal, if it's ethical, if it will benefit the sergeant major of the Army we are going to do that,'' he told MSNBC.