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House leadership calls for probe of Army reclaiming bonuses

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 24, 2016

WASHINGTON – A top House Republican on Sunday called for an investigation into the Army National Guard effort to reclaim decade-old, wartime re-enlistment bonuses from thousands of troops.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called the repayments “disgraceful” and said soldiers who re-enlisted should not be held accountable for mistakes by recruiters.

Meanwhile, more than 35,000 people had signed an online petition by Monday morning attempting to stop the Guard. The petition on the website Change.org was started over the weekend by an enlisted soldier faced with repayment of a bonus and the list of signatures could be sent to President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Congress.

“The Department of Defense should waive these repayments and I will be requesting a full brief from Army and National Guard leadership,” McCarthy said in a released statement. “The House will investigate these reports to ensure our soldiers are fully honored for their service.”

The National Guard has ordered about 10,000 soldiers and veterans to repay signing bonuses of $15,000 or more that were used as an incentive to increase the size of the force during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service said it is required by law to reclaim the money after audits discovered fraud and mismanagement.

The bonuses were paid to soldiers across the country but the bulk were part of the California National Guard. The money was supposed to attract soldiers in high-demand occupational specialties or noncommissioned officers for units headed to the wars.

But audits found the National Guard paid bonuses to many soldiers who were not eligible, only discovering the errors years later. In California, it found 9,700 current and retired troops who were improperly paid and has reclaimed $22 million, according to the Tribune News Service.

The online petition was created by Robert Richmond, an Army sergeant first class who once lived in California but now lists his address as Lincoln, Nebraska. He has been ordered to repay $15,000 or face debt collection action, the news service reported.

The improper payments were caused by a lack of oversight, widespread fraud and mismanagement by Guard officials.

“The system paid everybody up front, and then we spent the next five years figuring out if they were eligible,” Col. Michael S. Piazzoni, a California Guard official who oversaw the audits, told the Tribune News Service.

It is not the first time that the National Guard has faced blowback over how it spends money.

Sports sponsorship agreements with NASCAR and the NFL raised the ire of Congress over the past year.

The Guard had spent $32 million a year on a NASCAR marketing contract aimed at increasing recruitment until it parted ways with the sport in 2014. But the Senate found the spending resulted in zero new Guard recruits in 2012.

Lawmakers also criticized the Guard for paying 22 NFL teams for halftime tributes to servicemembers and color-guard performances, and for players to attend events honoring local high schools.

In one example, the Guard paid $675,000 to the New England Patriots for advertising that included bringing soldiers onto the field at halftime.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
   

Soldiers line up in formation.
CALIFORNIA ARMY NATIONAL GUARD

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