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Air Force Academy Whistleblower Alleges Dog Poisoned in Retaliation

Former USAFA economics professor David Mullin believes his service dog Caleb (above) was poisoned behind his locked office door in retaliation for blowing the whistle on Academy leadership for violating accreditation standards and the no establishment clause of the First Amendment. The dog was given either rat poison or a blood-thinning drug and needed three blood transfusions to survive. (Photo: David Mullin)

On Saturday, April 23, 2011, David Mullin, an associate professor of economics at the United States Air Force Academy, and his wife went to the Woodmen Valley Chapel to worship to avoid the Easter rush the next morning. During the service, Mullin noticed his service dog Caleb, a two-year-old black Labrador retriever, acting strangely. Mullin, who suffers from chronic pain due to limbically augmented pain syndrome, relies on Caleb for support to weather balance issues and dizzy spells brought on by his condition.

Two hours later, Caleb was suffering from massive internal bleeding. Mullin and his wife rushed Caleb to the vet, where he was given three blood transfusions to save his life. According to Caleb's patient history file from the Animal Emergency Care Centers-North, Caleb suffered from “Coagulopathy (bleeding disorder), suspect Rodenticide Toxicity or Coumadin Toxicity.” The dog had ingested an anticoagulant, either rat poison or a blood-thinning drug. Mullin immediately suspected foul play. But Mullin doesn't believe Caleb's poisoning was the random act of some dog hater; he believes it was a deliberate act of retaliation for blowing the whistle one too many times at his place of employment: the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA).


Mullin believes the person who poisoned Caleb snuck into his office two days earlier, where he left the dog alone behind his locked office door within the Department of Economics and Geosciences for about an hour. That tracks well with Caleb's patient history report, which explains that according to what anticoagulant the dog ingested, the effects of the poisoning wouldn't appear for two to seven days. He has no doubt that Caleb's poisoning is in retaliation for two unpopular decisions he made almost three months before.

In early February 2011, Mullin leveled serious allegations against two powerful administrators at the Academy, Dean of Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born and Vice Dean Col. Robert Fullerton. According to Mullin, these two administrators were hiring and retaining unqualified military instructors to teach classes they didn't have the appropriate credentials for and then lying about it to the Academy's accreditation body, the Higher Learning Commission of North Central Association (HLC), and a reporter. Mullin believes their actions jeopardized the quality of cadets' education and the reputation of the Academy, already recovering from previous scandals involving rape and religious discrimination. In September 2011, the Air Force Inspector General's Office informed Mullin that an investigation into his allegations had been opened.

In the letter, Col. John R. Taylor, director of the Senior Official Inquiries Directorate inside the Air Force Inspector General's Office, informed Mullin that Born was under investigation for “inaccurately portraying the academic credentials of the [USAFA]” to the HLC and a newspaper. In December 2010, Born told Pam Zubeck of the Colorado Springs Independent that the Academy's instructors “have graduate degrees in the areas they're teaching or a related field.”

Fullerton, for his part, was accused of making a false official statement “concerning the academic credentials of the [USAFA] faculty members while authoring the Academy's 2009 Institutional Self-Study report to the [HLC].” A self-study report is a form of self-regulation where an institution proves to the HLC that it deserves its accreditation renewed. Requests to interview both Born and Fullerton were not directly answered by Academy spokesman Lt. Col. John N. Bryan.

To be considered a qualified instructor, according to the HLC, “faculty teaching in undergraduate programs should hold a degree at least one level above that of the program in which they are teaching, and those teaching general education courses typically hold a master's degree or higher and should have completed substantial graduate coursework in the discipline of those courses.”

According to documents unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Mullin, the Academy has nearly four dozen instructors, mainly military, who teach courses for which they do not hold a related master's. The documents, a faculty credential survey taken in March 2011 by the Academy, were given to the RAND Corporation, which is studying whether the Academy has struck the right balance between civilian and military instructors.

Sometimes the data reveal an absurd match between an instructor's graduate degree and what they teach at the Academy. An instructor with a master's degree in exercise physiology teaches mathematical science. Another instructor with a master's degree in meteorology teaches geopolitics. But maybe the most bizarre examples have to do with language courses. An instructor with a master's degree in business administration teaches Arabic. Another with a master's degree in educational leadership teaches Chinese. And another instructor with a master's degree in public administration teaches Russian. “This is like hospital administrators covering up and letting unlicensed physicians treat patients with broken equipment,” Mullin says.

Mullin has academic ammunition for his belief that teachers with insufficient academic credentials harm students' learning. In a 2010 paper in the Journal of Political Economy, Scott E. Carrell, of the University of California-Davis and the National Bureau of Economic Research, and James E. West, then of the USAFA and now of Baylor University, analyzed seven years' worth of student and professor data at the Academy to determine if professor quality impacts student performance over time in a post-secondary environment. They found it did. “[S]tudents of less experienced instructors who do not possess a doctorate perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course but perform worse in the follow-on related curriculum,” according to Carrell and West. Or in plain English: students with instructors without PhDs do well in that instructor's class, which translates into good student evaluations for the instructor, but go on to perform poorly in more advanced classes. According to the FOIA data, one-third of military faculty have doctorates, while 86 percent of civilian faculty have doctorates – a huge disparity in academic achievement between faculty groups.

Aside from harming cadets' learning, Mullin says Born and Fullerton's hiring practices waste taxpayer dollars. The average cost of graduating a USAFA cadet is nearly $400,000, according to an email complaint from Mullin to the HLC, more than double what it costs to provide a student with a ROTC full-scholarship to a top university. One reason for the high cost of education is military faculty salaries, which averages around $100,000, according to the USAFA/RAND FOIA data.

The motivation, therefore, to hire and retain expensive but unqualified military instructors over cheaper but well-qualified civilian instructors and then lie about it comes down to privilege, according to Mullin. “Why keep them? To justify having high-paid senior ranking military officers such as the Dean, Vice Dean, and permanent department heads,” Mullin said. The threat, according to Mullin, is this: “If civilian faculty numbers rise significantly, then many colonels who serve as department heads will be replaced by academically better qualified and experienced civilians, especially in the areas of humanities, mathematics, and social sciences.” In other words, civilians will jointly run the Academy and military officers, like the Naval Academy

On February 10, 2012, Mullin received partial vindication from Colonel Taylor of the Inspector General's Office. According to the “preponderance of the evidence,” the investigation found both Born and Fullerton “negligent in making absolute statement[s]” to the HLC and a reporter, respectively. The letter did not detail any disciplinary actions taken against Born and Fullerton “in order to protect the privacy rights of subjects and witnesses.”

The investigation, however, also “found no evidence supporting any allegation or claim that the USAFA faculty is not 'qualified' to teach at USAFA.” As for the quality of the Academy's faculty, Mullin says the FOIA data speaks for itself. He eagerly awaits the RAND study and whether it will vindicate his concerns that unqualified military instructors teach cadets and that the composition of the Academy's faculty needs to shift to more qualified civilian instructors holding doctorates.

Truthout contacted HLC spokesman John Hausaman about the investigation and its verdict, but was referred to the Air Force Inspector General's Office. He did, however, note that the USAFA was in good standing with the HLC. “The Higher Learning Commission conducted an comprehensive evaluation of the institution in 2009 which included an on-site visit,” he wrote in an email. “The institution was found to be compliant with our Criteria for Accreditation following our comprehensive evaluation.” In a follow-up email from Truthout inquiring whether the HLC will reassess the Academy's accreditation due to the negligence finding against Born and Fullerton – the latter making factually wrong statements on the Academy's self-study report to the Commission, according to the Inspector General's investigation – Hausaman had no comment.

While the Academy seems to have dodged a bullet regarding accreditation, the Inspector General's finding of negligence against Born and Fullerton once again shines particularly bad lighting on the culture of the institution and its leadership. In 2003, the Academy was ravaged by a sexual assault scandal, in which 20 percent of female cadets reported they had experienced some form of sexual assault, many of who were discouraged from reporting the crimes. The scandal led to the demotion and forced retirement of former Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Dallager and transfers of three other top Academy officials. Recently, the Defense Department released its annual report on sexual harassment and violence at US service academies. For the fifth straight year, the USAFA had the most sexual assault reports with 33. Other recurring institutional problems include leadership that has also been accused of fostering a culture of religious discrimination because they cannot keep their religion to themselves – a phenomenon Mullin knows something about, and may have contributed to Caleb's poisoning.

Constitutional Violations Alleged

In late January 2011, Mullin and four anonymous USAFA instructors, with the help of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), filed a complaint with the US District Court of Colorado in an attempt to suspend a National Prayer Luncheon at the Academy because the command structure allegedly organized it.

“It is contended in this law suit that for the command structure of the AFA to undertake a purely religious activity such as this is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the complaint alleges. Mullin says that because emails announcing and promoting the event came from commanders, and not chaplains, that he felt compelled to go and believed not attending carried a risk of retaliation. (A self-described evangelical Christian and Republican, Mullin says he is a firm believer in the separation of church and state.)

Out of five instructors, both civilian and military, seeking the injunction on the prayer event, only Mullin sued publicly. The rest proceeded as John Doe plaintiffs because “they fear retribution from the command structure if their identities are revealed,” the complaint explains. The lawsuit was dismissed that February, with US District Judge Christine Arguello arguing that MRFF and Mullin had no legal standing. “The plaintiff has not met his burden that he will actually or imminently suffer the injury he fears,” her decision said. Nearly three months later, Mullin's service dog was poisoned. He strongly believes this is no coincidence.

Allegations of persistent violations of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment have dogged the Academy since 2005, largely due to complaints brought by MRFF on behalf of cadets and staff. In a 2009/2010 survey, the USAFA found that 48 percent of non-Christians and atheist cadets believed the majority of cadets had low tolerance for those “who do not follow a religion or believe in a Divine Being.” Religious intolerance has been a problem for Born as well, according to Mullin. In an email to the HLC, he alleged that Born passed out Bibles during mandatory faculty meetings and published a full-page signed statement of faith in the USAFA newspaper declaring Jesus Christ as her lord and savior.

The most damning allegation, however, is that Born told a subordinate to wage “counterinsurgency” against MRFF for its civil rights activism at the Academy. MRFF alleges that Born directed Col. Thomas Drohan, permanent professor and head of the Department of Military Strategic Studies, to conduct “COIN,” or counterinsurgency, against MRFF and its clients in his mid-term performance appraisal. On February 1, 2012, MRFF's attorney sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley demanding an investigation into the organization's allegations and a copy of Drohan's mid-term performance appraisal, in an attempt to determine “whether there is a relationship between counterinsurgency ordered by Brig. Gen. Born and the poisoning of Dr. Mullin's service dog that occurred in his USAFA office in April, 2011.” During a deposition with Mullin's attorney, Born denied any knowledge of directing any kind of counterinsurgency at the Academy.

Mullin doesn't know if there's a correlation between what Born allegedly directed Drohan to do and Caleb's poisoning, but he wants to find out. But regardless, if the directive exists, it “constitutes, at the very least, an unreasonable interference with civil rights protected under the First Amendment,” argued MRFF attorney Robert Eye in a January 31 letter to Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley. “Her calculated specification of MRFF and its clients as a COIN target is an apparent attempt to chill both speech and assembly rights of MRFF clients.”

Contract Not Renewed

When Mullin decided to blow the whistle on Born and Fullerton, he was already halfway out the door. In June of 2010, Born let him know his contract would not be extended after the end of the 2010/2011 academic years. Born's decision was based on a recommendation from Fullerton, who was then Mullin's second-line supervisor as head of the Department of Economics and Geosciences, she said during a deposition with Mullin's lawyer.

Bad blood between Mullin and Fullerton existed previously. In April 2010, Fullerton ordered Mullin to walk around his classroom and climb risers to police student usage of their laptop computers, even though this was not a responsibility outlined in faculty operating instructions. Mullin protested, arguing the order violated his reasonable accommodation agreement with the Academy that he could teach sitting down because of his limited movement due to his chronic condition.

“So I did walk around the classroom,” Mullin explained in an email to Truthout. “My left knee badly hurt (I was scheduled to have left knee replacement surgery within four weeks) and greatly aggravated my chronic pain. As a result I was hospitalized for three days. This made the recovery from the knee surgery slower.”

In response, Mullin filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Complaint in May 2010 against the Air Force for Fullerton's violation of his accommodation agreement. In a December 2010 affidavit concerning his complaint, Mullin told the investigator that he believes Fullerton recommended that Born not renew his contract because of his EEO complaint, not because he was a poor teacher. A week before Fullerton observed Mullin, another supervisor, Professor Jim West, observed him. In his affidavit, West told the investigator, “I thought Complainant had performed well, he was well prepared, had correct format, and gave out handouts that allowed classroom participation while he lectured.” But Mullin notes there is simple empirical proof that he wasn't fired because he was a poor teacher: his students consistently performed better on standardized tests than the course average during the 2009/2010 academic year.

Fullerton, in a deposition with Mullin's attorney in December 2011, has admitted to ordering the disabled instructor to comply with his order or face termination despite the reasonable accommodation agreement and no such responsibility to monitor student laptop use outlined in the Academy's guidelines for instructors. That admission may prove problematic in light of another witness's affidavit in the case.

“I think that Col Fullerton has something against Complainant because during the year 2005, during a meeting Col Fullerton made negative comments about Complainant,” swore Professor Terrence Haverluk. “Col Fullerton stated that Complainant was the worst professor and that he intended to give Complainant a teaching load of 5 courses when the normal load is 3. Col Fullerton eventually relented on this.”

Honor Code

Adopted in 1956, the USAFA honor code is the ethical foundation upon which all cadets stand. Its oath reads succinctly, “We Will Not Lie, Steal Or Cheat, Nor Tolerate Among Us Anyone Who Does.” Cadets are expected not only to abide by this minimal standard of conduct, but also confront fellow cadets when a violation is expected. As the Academy's web site states, the honor code is seen as critical to a cadet's development: “As the bearers of the public trust, both as cadets and as officers, it is the Honor Code which helps build a personal integrity able to withstand the rigorous demands placed upon them.”

Mullin had the honor code in mind when he made his complaints to the HLC and the Inspector General's Office. As graduates of the Academy, both Born and Fullerton pledged an oath to uphold the Academy's integrity, says Mullin, noting the irony and the hypocrisy. He wonders how the Academy can hold any cadet accountable for honor code violations after two of the Academy's administrators have been publicly found to be less than honest.

Now an economics lecturer at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Mullin is currently waiting to hear how Born and Fullerton have been held accountable for their “negligent” statements as well as whether an investigation has been opened into who poisoned his service dog.

“It is a gruesome way to try and kill an animal that is bred and trained to be defenseless,” Mullin recently wrote in February to the Inspector General of the Air Force, Lt. Gen. Marc Rogers. In the email, Mullin also tells Rogers that he does not know whether the 10th Security Forces Squadron, the Academy's police force, is actively investigating his dog's poisoning. Mullin has had to resort to filing FOIA requests to find out the status of the investigation, if one exists at all. Academy spokesman Bryan did not return an email inquiring whether an investigation into the dog's poisoning was opened or was ongoing.

In late February, Mullin did receive some good news. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission denied the Air Force's motion for a decision without a hearing. “Summary judgment is not to be used as a 'trial by affidavit' and is improper in situations where credibility is at issue,” wrote Administrative Judge Nancy A. Weeks. Once again, Mullin's public questioning of Fullerton's honesty has been found to have merit. This time, however, Mullin will get to confront the man he considers to be his tormentor in court. Someone he knows led not only to his firing from the Academy, but also someone he believes helped create such a climate of hostility against him that it led to his dog's poisoning.

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