SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk's newest adversary in the latest controversy over his military service is the Defense Department itself.
The Pentagon says Kirk, a commander in the Navy Reserve, improperly got involved in politics two different times while on active duty. Kirk was "counseled" about each violation and was required to sign a statement acknowledging he knew the rules and wouldn't break them again, according to the Pentagon.
But the Kirk campaign seemed to dispute the Pentagon's account Tuesday.
Spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said in a statement that no such violations were mentioned in Kirk's performance evaluations. She noted the Pentagon gave Kirk, a member of Congress, special permission to return to Afghanistan for another stint on active duty.
"Had there been any issues documented in Congressman Kirk's military record, the Department of Defense would not have issued a second waiver for his deployment to Afghanistan," Kukowski said. She would not comment further or address whether Kirk specifically denies the violations took place.
Kirk, a five-term member of Congress from Chicago's northern suburbs, is battling Democrat Alexi Giannoulias for the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. The Democratic National Committee quickly seized on the new development in the nationally watched race.
"Mark Kirk flat out lied about being disciplined by the Pentagon for using his military service to engage in political activity," said a DNC statement released Tuesday.
Violating a directive against political activity while on duty would be a military crime that technically could result in a court martial, said Michelle Lindo McCluer, director of the National Institute of Military Justice.
Individual infractions like the ones at issue with Kirk would be far more likely to be resolved with something like a simple warning, McCluer said. But it's possible having two such violations could raise the stakes, possibly resulting in a letter of admonishment or a more serious letter of reprimand, which could damage an officer's career, she said.
Giannoulias said in a conference call with reporters that the Pentagon statement "raises grave questions."
"I think this ... begs the question of what else in his professional career is Mark Kirk not telling the truth about," said Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer. "I think there are a lot of voters who want to hear Mark Kirk's answer on this latest development."
Kirk has made his 21 years of service in the Navy Reserve a key part of his campaign, mentioning it in most speeches and news releases.
But that was before revelations that he had exaggerated his military record, particularly by repeatedly saying he was named intelligence officer of the year. The award in question went to his entire unit.
The issue of Kirk taking political action while on active duty was first raised when a blogger named Terry Welch disclosed a Defense Department memo on the issue.
The Kirk campaign said then that he had "never" violated Pentagon policy.
"The document in question should be viewed for what it is – a baseless political ploy by partisans bent on defending a U.S. Senate seat at any cost," Kukowski said last week.
But the Defense Department says Kirk violated policy twice.
In late 2008, Kirk gave video interviews about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich being arrested, the Pentagon statement said. The Kirk campaign counters that regulations allowed him to conduct business related to his congressional duties.
And in July 2009, Kirk or a staff member wrote on the candidate's Twitter account that he was on duty at the Pentagon's National Military Command Center.
The Defense Department required Kirk to sign a statement acknowledging that political activity is not permitted while on active duty before he was given permission to return to Afghanistan in December 2009.
While refusing to answer questions, Kirk's aides did respond to Giannoulias' criticism. Kukowski called Giannoulias "a failed banker" with a record of recklessness and incompetence.
Associated Press Writer Deanna Bellandi contributed to this report from Chicago.