F-35 opponents claim basing decision rigged by Vt. National Guard, Leahy

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Opponents of bringing the F-35 to Burlington are raising new allegations of wrongdoing by the Vermont National Guard and Senator Patrick Leahy. They are demanding a federal probe into what they call unethical, and perhaps illegal conduct, in key decisions to base the fighter jet in Vermont. Both the Guard and Leahy are calling the charges bogus.

Longtime F-35 opponent Rosanne Greco and a group she calls the 'Search Party,' claim to have uncovered damning information about the Vermont Guard and Senator Patrick Leahy in 68,000 pages of military correspondence.

"You can see the actual emails and who's talking to who," Greco said. "We finally decided if we didn't go through this, the truth would be buried forever."

She got the emails after a failed lawsuit to stop the next generation fighter jets from coming to Vermont. Although the suit was unsuccessful, it led to the release of emails between the Guard and the Air Force about the F-35. Greco's group started to pour over them.

Reporter Darren Perron: What are you alleging happened that was perhaps unethical and perhaps illegal?
Rosanne Greco: Reading through the documents we found that there was many, many references to the Vt. National Guard -- mainly senior officers -- trying to change data, manipulate data... to show a better picture for Burlington.

Greco, a retired Air Force colonel, claims the Vermont Guard hid data related to the F-35's safety. She says the Guard, with the help of Senator Leahy, convinced the Air Force to change the way it tests noise levels, thereby moving Vermont to the top of the list and making the Vermont unit the first in the country to get the jets.

Reporter Darren Perron: What are you alleging the Senator did?
Rosanne Greco: First of all, he certainly did not tell us the truth. He actually called the chief of staff of the Air Force -- the four-star in charge of the Air Force -- and told them on Sept 4, 2013: 'I want the F-35 here.' Two months later they selected Burlington.

Greco claims the emails show other bases were better suited, and that the Air Force raised concerns about how the Vermont Guard plans to fly them to reduce noise, like limiting the use of afterburners. "They are gaming the system saying they are going to do this -- 'Never use afterburners,' 'It's not very loud.' But when it gets here, they're going to have to do it. That's what the Air Force said," she said.

"She continually seeks media attention for her stop the F-35 campaign," said General Steven Cray, the leader of the Vermont Guard. He says this is just another strategic move by opponents to halt the jets which are expected to arrive in Vermont next fall. "This generation of new fighter and weapons system is coming online and Vermont is leading the way."

Gen. Cray vehemently denies any wrongdoing. He says Vermont Guard leaders have been transparent and that the basing process was done correctly by the Air Force. "I am very confident that we acted appropriately, as well did the members that are under my charge, that supply information to the basing process -- did so appropriately," he said.

Opponents also claim that a quieter type of aircraft could replace the Guard's aging fleet of F-16s that pilots currently fly. But the Air Force Secretary told lawmakers Thursday that's highly doubtful. She said the number of fighter squadrons in the U.S. dropped from 134 in 1991 to only 56 today, and Vermont pilots could be grounded too, without the F-35.

In a statement to Channel 3 News, Senator Leahy said:

"Some opponents are promoting out-of-date or inaccurate information, such as obsolete noise modeling or promises of aircraft unavailable for basing in Vermont. The course they are pursuing would decimate the Vermont Air National Guard. The Air Force evaluated hundreds of locations for basing the F-35, and the facts showed that when all factors were considered, Burlington and the Vermont National Guard was the best choice."

"It probably secures a mission for Vermont and all of the jobs and all the infrastructure well into future decades for sure," Gen. Cray said.

Still, opponents have called on federal watchdogs at the inspector general offices of the Air Force, Department of Defense, Air National Guard -- as well as other Air Force brass -- to investigate the emails.

"I certainly hope, at a minimum, we take a re-look at the information," Greco said.

Reporter Darren Perron: Is this a last ditch effort?
Rosanne Greco: I don't know if it's a last-ditch effort. It's our next effort-- it's not here yet.

Basing the F-35 here was also strategic and a matter of national security according to the Guard. Military leaders say Burlington's close proximity to large cities like Boston and New York was part of the decision. The Green Mountain Boys did respond to New York immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, released a statement Friday, that said, "We can be proud Vermont will continue to play such a significant role in the defense of our nation."