Guard: Congress was told of bonus de­mand in 2014

Im­proper pay­ments were made in ev­ery state, of­fi­cial says

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND | NATION - By David S. Cloud and Sarah D. Wire

WASH­ING­TON — The Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard told the state’s mem­bers of Congress two years ago that the Pen­tagon was try­ing to claw back re-en­list­ment bonuses from thou­sands of sol­diers and even of­fered a pro­posal to mit­i­gate the prob­lem, but Congress took no action, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior Na­tional Guard of­fi­cial.

The of­fi­cial added that im­proper bonuses had been paid to Na­tional Guard mem­bers in ev­ery state, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that many more sol­diers may owe large debts to the Pen­tagon.

“This is a na­tional is­sue and af­fects all states,” Andreas Mueller, the chief of fed­eral pol­icy for the Cal­i­for­nia Guard, wrote in an email to the state’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion Mon­day. At­ten­tion had fo­cused on Cal­i­for­nia be­cause it was “the only state that au­dited” bonus pay­ments dis­trib­uted at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added.

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. Au­dits com­pleted last month con­cluded that 9,700 Cal­i­for­nia Guard mem­bers were not en­ti­tled to the pay­ments or that there had been er­rors in their pa­per­work.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged Mon­day that the prob­lem likely ex­tends be­yond Cal­i­for­nia.

“We know that the ma­jor­ity (of cases) is out of Cal­i­for­nia. How­ever, there may be other states in­volved,” said Laura Ochoa, a Pen­tagon spokes­woman. “We do not have a list of those states at this time.”

“The se­nior lead­er­ship of the de­part­ment is look­ing very closely at this mat­ter,” Ochoa said. “We take do­ing right by our ser­vice mem­bers very se­ri­ously,” she added.

The pos­si­bil­ity that more sol­diers will have to re­pay large bonuses paid years ago, when the Pen­tagon re­lied heav­ily on the Guard to sup­ply sol­diers for two wars, may in­crease pres­sure on Congress to act.

In an in­ter­view, Mueller said a pro­vi­sion in a de­fense bill that has passed the House would have cured at least part of the prob­lem by es­tab­lish­ing a 10-year limit on how long the Pen­tagon could re­cover bonuses that had been paid im­prop­erly.

Fi­nal pas­sage of that pro­vi­sion had been un­cer­tain be­cause of the money it would cost. Now, Congress may de­cide to go fur­ther.

On Mon­day, House Demo­cratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of Cal­i­for­nia sent a let­ter to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., say­ing that Congress should pass leg­is­la­tion to halt the Pen­tagon debt re­cov­ery “as soon as we gavel back into ses­sion” after the Nov. 8 elec­tions.

Both Hil­lary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump also weighed in on the controversy.

Clin­ton, in a state­ment, said that she was “ap­palled” by the news that the Pen­tagon was try­ing to take back the bonuses and that Congress should “swiftly pass leg­is­la­tion to right this wrong.”

Trump, in Florida, called the case an­other ex­am­ple of wrong­do­ing in a “cor­rupt” po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

“This can only hap­pen with th­ese in­com­pe­tent peo­ple we have,” he said. “No com­mon sense. They’re in­com­pe­tent.”

ARMY STAFF SGT. EL­IZ­A­BETH TARR

Mem­bers of the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard at a cer­e­mony ear­lier this month.

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