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Senate panel OKs defense pick despite sex assault allegation

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate committee on Wednesday approved the nomination of an Air Force general to become the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, largely discounting an aide's allegations that he had subjected her to unwanted sexual advances.

Gen. John Hyten flatly denied the allegations during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, and an Air Force investigation found no evidence to support the accusations. Hyten's nomination was opposed by several of the women on the panel, including one Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a former reserve officer and survivor of a sexual assault while in college. Others voting no were two Democratic presidential contenders, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has made military sexual misconduct one of her top issues in the Senate, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq War veteran who lost her legs when her helicopter was shot down.

He got the backing, however, of other key woman on the panel, including Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who issued a lengthy statement in his defense during the hearing. McSally is a former fighter pilot who has publicly described her own sexual assault that she says occurred while she was in the military.

The vote was 20-7, and Hyten's nomination now goes to the full Senate for consideration, likely in September. The committee chairman, GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said he was proud of the outcome, saying that the allegation against Hyten "was not believable. There was absolutely no truth to it."

He said the vote shows that "every question that could have been asked was asked." Hyten's forceful denial comes after several months of delay in the nomination process as senators held five classified sessions, pored over thousands of pages of the investigation and interviewed Hyten and Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, the officer who made the allegations.

Spletstoser told The Associated Press that Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017 while she was one of his top aides. She said she repeatedly pushed him away and told him to stop, and that he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.

The AP generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault, but Spletstoser has allowed her name to be used. Late Tuesday, the full Senate approved the nomination of David Norquist to be the deputy secretary of defense, marking the first time in seven months that the Pentagon has been led by two Senate-confirmed leaders. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in last week.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stepped down last New Year's Eve after a series of policy disputes with President Donald Trump. The job has been filled on an acting basis since then.

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