Report: Decades of abuse and mistrust created a climate for fraud in Virgin Islands National Guard
By SUZANNE CARLSON | The Virgin Islands Daily News | Published: April 29, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — The culture of abuse and mistrust cultivated over decades in the Virgin Islands National Guard resulted in a chaotic, disorganized environment in which training and actual military operations suffered, according to a federal report by the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations.
Completed on July 17, 2017, and released Wednesday by Government House after multiple requests by The Daily News, the report detailed the federal assessment team’s 2016 visits to the territory to investigate allegations of rampant misconduct — and the responses they received from VING members.
One junior member told the team that “no one knows what’s going on. We’re not very organized.”
The lack of leadership and accountability left VING vulnerable to fraud, and the team found reported incidents that included “fraudulent use of aircraft, missing government vehicle batteries and Overseas Housing Allowance [OHA] fraud. The OHA fraud was part of an ongoing, high-profile federal prosecution.”
The scope and dollar value of the reported fraud ranged widely.
“There were a number of witnesses that questioned the acquisition and or sale of certain large equipment. Numerous witnesses also questioned the tracking of pilferable items such as cleaning supplies and water for personal gain,” according to the report.
During one site visit, the team identified five unsecured equipment lockers filled with gear totaling more than $3,200. The team brought the situation to the attention of a senior official who “appeared to act immediately,” but when the team returned more than two weeks later they found “the same five unlocked lockers, still filled with individual equipment.”
One building housing several units was found to have been unsecured for more than three years, and “soldiers resorted to purchasing non-standard locks to secure interior doors to their offices and organizational storage areas in an effort to provide some measure of security.”
The V.I. Air National Guard halted aviation operations in 2015 and the National Guard Bureau removed aircraft from the territory “based on concerns stemming from documented abuses of fixed wing aircraft and expensive and debilitating corrosion issues with UH-72 MEDEVAC helicopters,” according to the report.
The assessment team inspected the guard’s aviation hangar and found “no tangible progress since the loss of the airframes in 2015.”
Fraudulent use of aircraft was also highlighted as an ongoing concern, including a misconduct report that contained an exhibit with photos of an aircraft interior that “appears to show rifle cases,” according to the report. “The report does not address the contents of the rifle cases or the origin of the contents. This matter was referred to the TAG [territorial adjutant general] by the team for additional investigation as the TAG deems appropriate.”
The team also found a troubling lack of accountability when it came to management of federal funding.
The U.S. Property and Fiscal Office “was aggressively establishing internal controls to validate certain financial transactions; however, these actions were met with resistance across the VING,” according to the report. “Many see these controls as being too aggressive and counter to a trusting ‘island culture.’”
Stuck in a vicious cycle
The assessment team concluded that without significant changes, the toxic culture at VING will continue to fester, to the detriment of all Virgin Islanders who depend on the National Guard during emergencies and natural disasters.
“The effects of this climate manifest itself in multiple negative ways, such as: ineffective facilities maintenance, deficient command supply discipline, inadequate physical security measures, aviation safety violations, recruiter improprieties, overseas housing allowance fraud resulting in criminal prosecutions, training management issues and, ultimately, low unit readiness indicators,” according to the report.
The problems have become so entrenched, the team found that many guard members simply gave up on trying to fix them: “Further, the aggregate impact of disorganization and the combination of fraternization, hostile work environment and sexual harassment manifests itself in a form of ‘learned helplessness’ among members leading to acceptance of inefficient processes and inaction where action is warranted,” according to the report.
Commanders have the ability to “administratively separate, demote, and issue reprimands to enlisted members,” but “there are few administrative measures available to address officers involved in misconduct,” according to the report. “The team noted a general lack of understanding regarding procedures for maintaining good order and discipline, to include flagging and various administrative actions such as Withdrawal of Federal Recognition.”
Documentation of misconduct reports was a mess, the report found.
The VING used “an inconsistent case tracking system for records management. An Excel spreadsheet was designed to track misconduct actions, investigations, administrative actions and separation actions; however, based on the lack of complete documentation provided to the team, consistent tracking of disciplinary matters posed a clear challenge in the VING,” according to the report. “Files provided to the team did not match the Excel spreadsheet provided, and many files were incomplete or did not include the actual outcome/results of investigation and/or action taken.”
Many crimes were also dealt with administratively, rather than through prosecution, according to the report.
“The VING members serving in a Title 32 or Territory Active Duty Status are subject to V.I. territorial criminal law, but there is no V.I. Military Justice Code. Therefore, ‘common law’ crimes such as rape, indecent exposure/touching and all other assaults cannot be criminally prosecuted by the VING but must instead be referred to civilian authorities. As a result, VING leadership relies upon administrative action to address misconduct,” according to the report.
In order to change the culture and protect junior members and recruits vulnerable to abuse, senior officers must step up and do better, team members concluded.
“Administrative action is the primary tool for commanders to restore order and discipline within their ranks, but it must be swift, lawful and administered consistently,” according to the report. “Because the processing of routine administrative matters lagged, or
©2019 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR)
Visit The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR) at www.virginislandsdailynews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.