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Army investigating Senate candidate Cal Cunningham following reports of affair

In this file photo, Lexington native and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham shows his appreciation to his hometown supporters at The Barbecue Center during the kick-off of his 'Carolina Conversations' tour of the state. The husband of a woman who confirmed an extramarital affair with Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham said he should drop out of the North Carolina race. (Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch/TNS)

The U.S. Army Reserve is investigating Democratic North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, who is a Reserve officer, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The statement follows news reports that Cunningham, who is married and has children, had an affair this year with public relations consultant Arlene Guzman Todd of California, whose husband has served in the Army, according to published reports.

“The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving Lt. Col. James Cunningham.  As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time,” Army Reserve Lt. Col. Simon Flake said in the statement.

An Army document states that Cunningham is assigned to the 134th Legal Operations Detachment with the Army Reserve Legal Command and that he had deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On his campaign website, Cunningham touts that he has served as a military prosecutor.

The military prohibits adultery and other activities that it says are detrimental to the “good order and discipline in the armed forces” or bring discredit to the armed forces. Soldiers can be prosecuted for it.

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Cunningham is attempting to unseat Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, and the Tillis seat is one that the Democrats have fought hard to pick up in a bid to take majority control of the Senate. Tillis was elected to the Senate in 2014, beating first-term Democrat Kay Hagan.

In a statement Wednesday to the USA Today Network, Cunningham communications director Rachel Petri said Cunningham would cooperate with the investigation.

“Cal will participate in this process, but it does not change the stakes of this election or the need for new leaders who will fight for the issues North Carolinians care about instead of caving to the corporate special interests – which is exactly what Senator Tillis has done in his years in Washington,” she said.

After news of this affair and a possible second affair were made public late last week and on Monday, the campaign said this is a personal matter and Cunningham will not drop out of the race.

Cunningham had previously issued an apology for his actions.

Tillis, who is recovering from testing positive for COVID-19, on Wednesday commented on Twitter about the matter.

“Cal Cunningham is now under investigation by the U.S. Army Reserve. He owes North Carolinians a full explanation,” Tillis said. “The truth still matters in North Carolina, Cal.”

‘An absolute career killer’

The military doesn’t shy from enforcing its policy against extramarital affairs, said Tod Leaven, an Army veteran and lawyer in Asheville.

“For officers, having an affair is an absolute career killer,” Leaven said. “They totally enforce it, and everyone knows it.”

While court-martials for adultery aren’t common, Leaven said personnel who break the military’s prohibition on “Extramarital Sexual Conduct” can face less-than-honorable discharges, known informally as “bad paper.”

Leaven said the ban, which falls under Article 134 of the Universal Code of Military Justice, guards against servicemembers being compromised by the raw emotions and potential blackmail of extramarital affairs.

“Affairs are so sensitive, and people do really, really stupid stuff to try to hide an affair and that could just jeopardize a unit,” he said.

Past prosecutions

There have been prominent cases of military personnel prosecuted for adultery, but these were in connection to allegations of other crimes.

Some of them:

Former Army Brigadier Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair was married, with two children, when he had a long-running affair with a young captain. She later accused him of sexual assault. This accusation led to his court-martial in 2014. Sinclair vehemently denied the assault.  He pleaded guilty to the affair and to having two other improper relationships. Sinclair was reprimanded, fined $20,000 and demoted two ranks to lieutenant colonel. He then retired. The reduction in rank penalized his pension.

Former Army Col. James H. Johnson III had an affair in Iraq with an Iraqi woman, committed fraud with taxpayer money to help her family, lived with her when he was stationed in Italy, and married her — all while he was married to his American wife. Johnson pleaded guilty in 2012 to fraud, bigamy, adultery and other charges, and a jury convicted him of two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He was demoted to lieutenant colonel, fined $300,000, and then he retired, Stars & Stripes reported. 

Air Force Col. Eugene Marcus Caughey was to be tried on charges of rape, sexual assault, adultery and other charges in 2016. He committed suicide shortly before his trial was scheduled to begin, The Washington Post reported.

David Petraeus, the well-known retired four-star general and former CIA director, had an adulterous affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Broadwell was an officer in the Army Reserve. It’s not clear in published reports whether their sexual relationship began before or after Petraeus retired from the Army. Petraeus pleaded guilty in federal civilian court in 2015 to a misdemeanor for illegally sharing classified documents with Broadwell. The Army could have prosecuted Petraeus but chose not to, The Washington Post reported. Broadwell told the New York Times that her promotion from major to lieutenant colonel was revoked.

‘He should know military law’

Leaven, who still supports Cunningham in the Senate race, was dismayed by the Democratic candidate’s actions, especially given that Cunningham was a military prosecutor.

“He should know military law better than anyone else,” he said. “If there’s an expert on the Universal Code of Military Justice, it should be Cal. And knowing it, he still decided to take the risk, and that’s on him.”

While Leaven said the Army Reserve can’t create a double standard by approach the Cunningham situation differently, he does feel the policy against extramarital sexual conduct can be antiquated at times — especially for members of the Army Reserve who spend most of their time off duty.

Some veterans question how much private shortcomings impact their military performance.

“I would say it’s a private thing,” said Foryst Blackburn, a Vietnam War veteran in Wilkes County. “I don’t think a man’s personal life affects his ability to serve his country, but it’s sort of a black mark if they’re running for an office of some kind.”

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© 2020 The Fayetteville Observer