UPDATE – 10/26, 11:30 a.m. EST: Defense Sec. Ash Carter announced Wednesday that he has ordered the Pentagon to stop forcing California National Guard members to pay back enlistment bonuses and other benefits that were improperly distributed in 2006 and 2007.
“This is a case where we have a trust with the service members who have served us”, Carter told NBC News. “We need to do justice. And we need to do it fast.”
On Tuesday, the House Oversight Committee requested the California Guard hand over documents related to the scandal with the stated purpose of holding responsible parties “accountable.”
The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday that approximately 10,000 soldiers who enlisted with the California National Guard in the mid-2000s are being forced to repay their enlistment bonuses after federal investigators found rampant fraud and overpayment of recruits around the time of large scale U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the National Guard Bureau, overpayment occurred in all 50 states, but was most exaggerated in California, where “thousands” of signing bonuses and student loan subsidies were approved for unqualified applicants.
Only intelligence and civil affairs personnel or noncommissioned officers in Iraq and Afghanistan are legally eligible to receive bonus money after taking their established post. In the case of the California Guard, recruits were given checks up front to incentivize enlistment and help fill the ranks so officials could reach high target numbers.
42 auditors reviewed monetary incentive applications for California Guard personnel and found that 9,700 out of 14,000 recruits from a decade ago owe at least some of their bonus money to the federal government. The Pentagon has recovered $22 million to-date.
In addition, the state’s National Guard incentive overseer, Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe and three other Guard officers plead guilty fraud charges. Sgt. Jaffe was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in 2011 after making an estimated $15.2 million worth of false claims.
Although the California Guard is now assisting those who have been ordered to repay file appeals with the Bureau and Army Board for Correction of Military Records, the process is arduous and time consuming and doesn’t give some retired members living paycheck-to-paycheck the relief they desperately need.
Army Sgt. First Class (SFC) Bryan Strother of Oroville, Calif., filed a class-action lawsuit in February with a federal district court in Sacramento on behalf of all Guard enlisters who received bonus money. Strother’s suit requested that the court order recovered bonus money to be repaid and an injunction issued against the Pentagon.
SFC Strother received a letter in August from the National Guard Bureau waiving his bonus repayment order. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California filed a petition with the Sacramento court to dismiss Strother’s lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiff no longer had legal standing because the order for repayment was revoked.
“It’s a legal foot-dragging process to wear people out and make people go away,” Strother said. “It’s overwhelming for most soldiers.”
Other former Army officers order to repay signing bonus money include: Captain Chris Van Meter, an Iraq veteran, who refinanced his mortgage to repay $46,000 in enlistment and student loan subsidies; Master Sgt. Susan Haley, served in Afghanistan, owed $20,500 for bonus and has been paying $650 per month; SFC Robert Richmond, Iraq and Afghan veteran, owes $15,000 for special forces bonus; Major Robert D’Andrea, Iraq veteran, ordered to repay $20,000 bonus after auditors couldn’t find incentive application.
[Los Angeles Times] [NBC News] [Photo courtesy David Kennedy/Getty Images via CBS-San Francisco]