WASHINGTON -- Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned yesterday amid questions about his involvement in a scandal over the assault on 26 women, including 14 female officers, at a convention of naval aviators last year.
The Navy secretary, who attended the convention but said he saw no misconduct, had come under growing criticism from Congress in recent days for the Navy's handling of the inquiry, which Mr. Garrett last week turned over to the Defense Department inspector general.
Mr. Garrett, who joined the Navy in 1961 as a fireman's apprentice and became the first person in modern Navy history to rise from the enlisted ranks to secretary, submitted his resignation in a letter to President Bush, taking "full responsibility" for the handling of the incident.
In a message sent to Navy and Marine Corps personnel worldwide yesterday, Mr. Garrett said, "The tradition of our Navy mandates that senior officials bear the ultimate responsibility for their command. I accepted full responsibility for the handling of the Tailhook incident and the leadership failure which allowed such misconduct to occur."
In a statement issued last night, Mr. Bush accepted Mr. Garrett's resignation, but did not include a customary note of thanks. Some lawmakers suggested last night that Mr. Garrett was forced to resign by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Mr. Cheney issued a statement praising Mr. Garrett for presiding over the Navy in one of its most tumultuous periods as it shrank to a post-Cold-War fleet.
The behavior of Navy officers at the Las Vegas convention has led to two far-reaching Navy inquiries, the reassignment of an admiral from Maryland's Patuxent Naval Air Station and a new training program.
Mr. Garrett's resignation took effect immediately, making Undersecretary J. Daniel Howard, a former spokesman for both the White House and the Pentagon, acting secretary.
The Pentagon spokesman, Pete Williams, said no decision had been made on a permanent replacement. But officials said that Barbara S. Pope, assistant Navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, and Sean O'Keefe, the Pentagon comptroller, were candidates.
Senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday that the panel would not allow top Navy and Marine Corps promotions to go forward until junior officers were cleared of any involvement in the Tailhook incident.
In a sign of the seriousness of the investigation, the Pentagon's inspector general has ordered Navy officials to suspend all disciplinary proceedings against approximately 70 officers implicated in the affair, saying their superiors may be involved.
"We don't know how high this thing goes," Derek J. Vander Schaaf, the acting Pentagon inspector general, said in a telephone interview.
The controversy began at the convention of the Tailhook Association, a private group of retired and active-duty naval aviators whose parties were notoriously raunchy.
Mr. Garrett attended the last night of the convention, on Sept. 7, and after delivering a speech, sipped drinks with elite Navy and Marine Corps fighter pilots on an outdoor terrace at the Las Vegas Hilton.
But in the hotel's packed hallways, drunken gangs of aviatorswould surround unsuspecting female guests stepping off the elevator and pass them down a gantlet, grabbing at their breasts and buttocks and stripping their clothes.
Mr. Garrett said that he was on the terrace for 45 minutes but was unaware that anything was amiss until three weeks later. His credibility was wounded, however, when the Naval Investigative Service discovered, in late June, 55 pages of interviews it had omitted from its 2,000-page report in April.
One of the interviews quoted a Marine captain, who said Mr. Garrett "came by" a hotel suite that opened onto the indoor hallway where the assaults took place. Mr. Garrett acknowledged that he fetched a can of beer from near the entrance but continued to insist he never saw or heard anything wrong.
On Oct. 11, the Naval Investigative Service started an inquiry into a complaint by an admiral's aide, Lt. Paula Coughlin, 30, a helicopter pilot.