Whistleblower or homewrecker? Gwinnett native fights Navy adultery charge
DACULA, Ga. - She called herself a whistleblower. The Navy called her a liar. And that's not the only word the military has used over the years to describe former Lieutenant Commander Syneeda Penland.
Guilty. Convicted. Adulterer.
Instead of a promising Navy career, the Gwinnett native found herself part of Navy history, the kind that earns you a Scarlet Letter instead of a Purple Heart.
According to her lawyer, Penland became the first single female Navy officer ever thrown in the brig for adultery. For nearly ten years, she claimed to be an innocent victim of the military-industrial complex, punished for challenging wasteful or fraudulent spending.
"Whether it's adultery or whether it's fraud, let's let the public weigh," challenged Penland, sitting in her Dacula dining room with the FOX 5 I-Team. "Which one is more important? Do they want gossip? Messy gossip? Do you want to see my pictures? I could have already been making millions. Look at Atlanta Housewives. This is a perfect story for them but I'm not trashy like that, I'm sorry."
Penland's perfect story really began at the sprawling Naval Base San Diego back in the mid 2000s when she was put in charge of processing millions of dollars in Gulf War expenditures. In early 2007, a female Navy chief accused the unmarried Penland of having an affair with her husband, Lt. Mark Wiggan, who once served under Penland and became friends when they were both assigned to the destroyer Stout.
"It was just kind of husband and wife, they were going at it with each other," Penland said. "And I got caught in the middle of it."
She sure did. That upset wife gave the Navy pictures she found on her husband's laptop, pictures showing Penland and her husband each in some compromising positions. We don't have the pictures, but we couldn't show them to you anyway. They're supposedly that graphic.
"And I'm like whoa! Where did these pictures come from?" Penland asked.
"Pictures of you?"
"Pictures of me. And I'm like where did these pictures come from? And I'm like oh my God! Oh wow!"
Penland later explained to the Navy she had loaned Wiggan her digital camera to document physical abuse in his crumbing marriage, forgetting that she had earlier taken photos of herself having sex with another man during a wild night of drinking. Then, she said her photos must have gotten mixed up on Wiggan's laptop with pictures of him having sex with another woman. There are no clearly identifiable pictures showing both in the same shot.
But when she refused an administrative punishment, the Navy eventually moved to court martial Penland.
"And I was like, really? You guys going to come at me like that?" Penland said defiantly. "So when you can see through the smokescreen, it was never about the pictures. I was single. And if you want to put this on camera you can. I could have had sex with the entire fleet and would not be guilty of adultery."
A civilian friend signed an affidavit claiming he was the one she was having sex with in those racy photos. Even after being offered immunity, that junior officer Wiggan denied under oath he was sleeping with Penland.
But prosecutors produced other evidence, including emails between the two that discussed Penland being pregnant with his child.
"That looks suspicious, you gotta admit," I pointed out.
"Well, to look suspicious in an email when you can look at my medical history. I was scheduled for a hysterectomy at that time."
She suggested the estranged wife faked those emails.
In 2008, a general court martial convicted Penland of adultery, making a false statement, conduct unbecoming of an officer and wrongfully using government property. She served 45 days in the brig, ultimately kicked out of the Navy just months shy of her 20-year retirement. No honorable discharge. No military pension.
"When you transmit naked pictures of yourself to a junior officer, and his wife, you got a real problem," remarked local attorney Steven Shewmaker. He often represents veterans in court but is not involved in the Penland case.
"Do you think the public should feel sorry for her?"
"I can't feel sorry for her because among other things the Navy gave her an opportunity to resolve this with an administrative reprimand. To an extent she did it to herself by refusing the lesser form of punishment."
But Penland argued the entire case was concocted to shut her up because she witnessed massive amounts of spending waste and corruption, a revolving door of military retirees coming back as private contractors.
"I was like, you guys are stealing here!" she insisted.
The Inspector General substantiated three of her 14 allegations, including contractors who performed personal services for command staff. She has since written a book, "Broken Silence: A Military Whistleblower's Fight for Justice" which details more corruption allegations. But even the timing of her official complaints raises questions. She did not report her concerns to the Inspector General until April, 2007, after she was formally told about the adultery investigation.
"It's about justice. It's about retaliation. It's about abuse of authority."
"Were you in love with Lt. Wiggan?"
"No!" she responded. "Why would I be in love with him? Why would I be in love with him?"
"Well, you let him stay at your house."
"He was a friend. And that's what we do in the military."
In April, following a legal motion she filed herself, Syneeda Penland finally won her first battle. A U.S. District judge ruled the Navy should have considered whistleblower status when Penland asked for clemency.
She's hoping that decision will ultimately lead to an honorable discharge… and to retire with a full 20 years service.
"You talk about a Scarlet Letter. It comes with a conviction." I pointed out. "Not just a letter."
"And we will probably see the Navy overturn that here in a couple of weeks."
"That's your hope."
Penland was certain. "It will be."