Pentagon seeks immediate relief for hundreds in Guard bonus scandal
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2016
WASHINGTON — About half of California National Guard soldiers now being forced to repay wartime enlistment bonuses could soon have their debt wiped clean — without any more effort on their part, a top Defense Department official told House lawmakers Wednesday.
A preliminary screening of the 1,400 bonuses being recouped in the state indicated about 700 could be forgiven based on existing paperwork, said Peter Levine, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Levine said the screening was an initial assessment as the department pours over about 17,000 bonus cases in California. The Defense Department froze the recollection efforts and launched a full review in October of bonuses doled out during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars after public outcry erupted over National Guard efforts to claw back the recruitment incentives, which were worth between $15,000 and $80,000.
“We are going through a process where we are going to be looking at these cases to look at which ones should be subject to recoupment and we are going to do it as expeditiously as possible,” Levine, who is heading the Defense Department review, said during testimony to a House Armed Services subcommittee.
The California National Guard discovered widespread fraud and mismanagement in 2010 — much of it related to a single recruiter who was jailed — and struggled to adjudicate thousands of cases. A story in the Los Angeles Times in October detailed the problems and the Guard’s sometimes aggressive efforts to reclaim money from soldiers who enlisted to serve in the wars.
Levine said the vast majority of the 17,000 bonus cases now under review at the Pentagon will also likely be cleared soon.
The department expects to focus on about 1,000 to 2,000 cases for closer investigation during the next six to seven months, meaning soldiers could be called to justify receiving their bonuses, he said. Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the review to be complete by the end of June.
Levine said there will still be instances where soldiers are ordered to repay their bonus money.
“We have a significant number of other cases in this pile of recruitment cases where we had servicemembers make a commitment and receive a bonus on the basis of the commitment and then not fulfill that commitment,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Army National Guard assured House lawmakers that it had taken measures to avoid the fraud and mismanagement that led to the California scandal, and said the problems had not spread to Guard operations in any other states or territories.
“Based upon reviews and assessment of the entire Army National Guard, fraud in the incentives program is not a nationwide problem,” said Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, the director of the Army National Guard, who testified with Levine.
The House hearing Wednesday also allowed some California lawmakers an opportunity to vent about the scandal.
“To presume that the soldier is guilty and therefore responsibly for a decade-old contract that they signed in good faith and put their life on the line to me is a big black mark on our Department of Defense’s record,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif, who is a veteran.
Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, adjutant general of the California National Guard, said he agreed “whole-heartedly” with the congressman.
“We do have a problem where we are going to have to establish trust with our soldiers, their families and with potential recruits,” said Baldwin, who was put in charge in 2011 to fix the bonus problems.
Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Kadavy, left, director of the Army National Guard, and Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, adjutant general of the California National Guard, talk with Peter Levine, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, before a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel subcommittee on Capitol Hill, Dec. 7, 2016.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES