Illinois Republican Congressional candidate Esther Joy King is facing an ethics complaint, claiming she apparently violated Department of Defense guidelines by wearing her military uniform in several campaign ads.

According to Defense Department guidance, members of the Armed Forces are prohibited from acting in a manner “that could reasonably give rise to the inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval or endorsement.”

However, that hasn’t stopped Esther Joy King from appearing in her military uniform in campaign ads and potentially violating ethical conduct in the process, according to Jim Garbett of Moline, a U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard veteran who recently filed the complaint.

“You have a right to free speech, but you don’t commercialize your uniform,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for people in the military, but you don’t wear your uniform and you don’t say ‘battle ready’ in a commercial. To me, that crossed a line. I feel it’s wrong to advertise while in uniform.”

King has served as a JAG officer for the U.S. Army Reserve.

King, of East Moline, is a Republican candidate for Illinois’ 17th Congressional District (to be vacated after this year by five-term Congresswoman Cheri Bustos) and a member of the U.S. Army Reserve.

Garbett wrote in his complaint that for the past 18 months, King has frequently used her position in the Army Reserve to promote her bid for political office. He noted five campaign ads by King in which she is wearing her uniform, four of which are from the 2020 election cycle, when she lost to incumbent U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline.

“These actions are clear and consistent violations of Department of Defense policy that prohibits candidates from political office from appearing in uniform when engaging in political activity,” Garbett wrote.

He cited DOD directive 1344.10, which states a member of the Armed Forces may “not otherwise act in a manner that could reasonably give rise to the inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval or endorsement.

“These actions by King clearly constitute improper attempts to use her position in the Army Reserve to promote her bid for political office, despite being expressly prohibited by Department of Defense rules,” he wrote. “I urge the Department of Defense to take action to correct this clear violation of its rules.”

Garbett, 76, served six years in the military during the Vietnam War era, from 1968 to 1974.

King campaign replies

Emily Tuttle, campaign manager for King, issued the following statement Tuesday regarding the complaint:

“As a member of the military, Esther considers it her duty to hold high standards. Throughout the campaign, she has consulted her ethics officer, her Army commander, legal counsel, and members of Congress who also serve in the Reserve,” Tuttle said.

King ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2020 against incumbent U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos.

“Thankfully, Esther as a JAG Officer has read the entire Department of Defense Directive regarding political activities by non-active duty members of the Armed Forces. This Directive permits the use of military rank, affiliations, videos, and photographs with proper disclaimers,” she said, noting that in every ad, the disclaimer is displayed. “This complaint is a desperate political stunt with no merit.”

The DOD directive says that any such military information included in campaigning for political office “must be accompanied by a prominent and clearly displayed disclaimer that neither the military information nor photographs imply endorsement by the Department of Defense or their particular Military Department (or the Department of Homeland Security for members of the Coast Guard).”

For example, such a disclaimer would say, “John Doe is a member of the Army National Guard. Use of his military rank, job titles, and photographs in uniform does not imply endorsement by the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.”

King earned her JD and Masters of Law in Taxation from Northwestern’s law school, and began her legal career as an Associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago. She later served the State of Illinois in the Office of Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Technology.

King’s current campaign website does not include a video on the homepage, noting it is unavailable. Her online campaign bio says:

“Esther Joy King is a battle-ready leader with a heart to serve. Esther’s training as a lawyer and Captain in the Army Reserve makes her ready to get things done for us in Congress, starting on day one.

“She learned the value of service from her parents who were missionaries on the US-Mexico border in Juarez. Although her family did not have much, they were generous to those who were less fortunate. It was growing up in this life of ministry that Esther learned the values of faith, family, and tireless sacrifice for others,” the site says.

King lost to Bustos in November 2020 by a margin of 52-to-48 percent. She and Republican Charlie Helmick are seeking the GOP nomination to run in November 2022, and so far six Democrats have announced their campaigns for that party’s nomination in the 17th District.