Pentagon halts bonus repayments amid latest National Guard recruitment scandal
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 26, 2016
WASHINGTON — Amid growing public pressure, the Pentagon intervened Wednesday in the latest Army National Guard recruitment scandal by temporarily stopping the service from reclaiming wartime re-enlistment bonuses.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter halted the collection efforts and ordered a review of the service’s bonus program by January, providing some relief for 6,400 soldiers and veterans from California who may be required to repay the bonuses of $15,000 or more given out during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. An additional 3,200 troops were also flagged but their cases had not yet been processed, meaning they too could face repayment, the National Guard Bureau said Wednesday.
The Pentagon move came after days of outcry from veterans groups, criticism from leadership in Congress and a newly launched probe by a House oversight panel. It was the second time Washington has intervened in a National Guard scandal over the past year – Congress in November banned its paid patriotism tributes at sporting events -- and the latest in a string of recruitment controversies.
Carter said the Pentagon is aiming to resolve all of the California National Guard bonuses by July. The cases represent about $40-$50 million.
“Ultimately, we will provide for a process that puts as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own. At the same time, it will respect our important obligation to the taxpayer,” Carter said in a released statement.
Outrage from Congress
His order did not address soldiers and veterans in other states who have also been ordered to repay bonuses that the National Guard believes were fraudulently or mistakenly given out.
Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the majority of bonus cases are in California. He told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday that he would disclose the number of affected troops outside of California but did not provide the information before deadline.
Peter Levine, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the Defense Department believes the issue is only widespread in California. The numbers in other states are in the dozens, he said Wednesday.
“This is a California problem for us,” Levine said.
The Army National Guard began paying re-enlistment bonuses in 2005 as it sought to boost troop numbers for the wars. Auditors later discovered fraud in 2012, triggering years of efforts to reclaim the payments, Lengyel said. Some soldiers and veterans said the service has used aggressive debt-collecting techniques and that repayments can add up to hundreds of dollars per month.
Congress was notified of the fraud problems after the audits, Lengyel said. But the repayments triggered bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill this week and lawmakers demanded that the collection efforts stop. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee launched an investigation by requesting the National Guard turn over all documentation on the bonuses.
“Everybody wants to make a strong statement. There’s just a willingness to fix this and fix it ASAP,” said Tom Porter, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has been working closely with Congress on the issue.
Porter’s group is also urging the Pentagon to permanently stop collections and pay servicemembers back. Other national veteran organizations lashed out at the National Guard. The Veterans of Foreign Wars called reclamation of bonuses “insulting” and the American Legion said it is “outrageous.”
Lengyel, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said most of the soldiers unintentionally broke the rules when they collected the bonuses.
Meanwhile, he defended the Army National Guard’s track record on recruitment Wednesday, saying that it has learned from recent controversies and that some have been blown out of proportion.
“We have looked at ourselves hard … can we manage our money better and track it better, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that,” Lengyel said.
Paid patriotism banned
The National Guard found itself in a similar situation last year after reports it had been paying the National Football League to stage troop appreciation events – so-called paid patriotism -- at games.
The paid events were an effort by the service to improve its brand and gin up recruitment. In one example, it paid the Atlanta Falcons $315,000 to bring 80 National Guard members onto the field to unfurl an American flag.
“I and so many other Americans were shocked and disappointed to learn that several NFL teams weren’t sponsoring these activities out of the goodness of their own hearts, but were doing it to make an extra buck – taking money from the American taxpayers in exchange for honoring American troops,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who headed an investigation, said at the time.
In November, Congress passed a ban on the paid patriotism events.
The public criticism led the NFL to return $723,734 in taxpayer money this year that the league said might have been spent on the events, though the Senate probe found the Defense Department had incomplete documentation of the spending, which was mostly done by the Army National Guard. The payments were also made to Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Soccer League, and at least two universities.
Zero proven recruits
The National Guard’s paid patriotism scandal followed closely after another sponsorship controversy in 2014. It had continued spending on NASCAR sponsorship for about a decade without analyzing the program or looking into why active service branches found it too expensive and ineffective, the service told a Senate panel.
The National Guard spent about $32 million per year – after other services had dropped the sponsorship – to put its logo on cars and for driver visits to public schools in an effort to increase recruitment. The sponsorship resulted in zero new guard recruits in 2012 and only about 8,000 of the 1 million leads needed to meet recruiting goals in 2013, according to a Senate inquiry.
The service discontinued its sponsorship of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. in August 2014, citing tight budgets but giving no indication that the program was ineffective.
The head of Army National Guard marketing said the sponsorship built strong brand awareness and achieved “extraordinary” recruiting.
“Many people would argue that NASCAR did create an image of the National Guard. It was successful to some degree. It was difficult, I will tell you, to specifically tie our return on investment to money spent to bringing in specific numbers of recruits,” Lengyel said Wednesday.
Riddled with fraud
The service continues to deal with fraud from its Guard Recruiting Assistance Program, which was launched along with the re-enlistment bonuses to gain recruits during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It provided up to $2,000 to Army Guard members and the service’s civilians who signed up new recruits. The program has been riddled by fraud and was featured on the investigative news program “60 Minutes” this year, which called the G-RAP fraud probe the Army’s largest criminal investigation.
So far, the National Guard has uncovered $12 million in fraudulent bonuses, according to Lengyel. So-called recruiting assistants have wrongly claimed credit for recruits they never signed up, resulting in a steady stream of criminal cases. Last month, two Minnesota Guard members pleaded guilty to the fraud and a sergeant on Guam was charged this month.
Still, Lengyel said that the program has been a success by many measures and that the National Guard has made changes to its contracting requirements to avoid fraud. He said G-RAP cost $400 million and resulted in 100,000 new recruits.
The program also drew fire from the Senate, and it was predicted the fraud could reach $100 million.
“The ultimate amount of fraud and actual misappropriation of resources related to G-RAP was not anywhere near what it was reported to be,” he said.
Soldiers of the California National Guard's 40th Infantry Division rehearsing an air assault mission at Fort Hunter Liggett in 2014. The Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau reported this month, that the Pentagon has been demanding repayment of enlistment bonuses — which often reached $15,000 or more — from thousands of California Guard soldiers, many of whom had served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
BENJAMIN COSSEL/U.S. NATIONAL GUARD