Ryan urges Pen­tagon to sus­pend col­lec­tion of Guard bonuses

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Matthew Daly The As­so­ci­ated Press

WASHINGTON >> House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday called for the Pen­tagon to im­me­di­ately sus­pend ef­forts to re­cover en­list­ment bonuses paid to thousands of sol­diers in California, even as the Pen­tagon said late Tuesday the num­ber of sol­diers af­fected was smaller than first be­lieved.

“When those Cal­i­for­ni­ans an­swered the call to duty” to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, “they earned more from us than bu­reau­cratic bungling and false prom­ises,” Ryan said. He urged the Pen­tagon to sus­pend col­lec­tion ef­forts un­til “Congress has time ... to pro­tect service mem­bers from life­long li­a­bil­ity for DOD’s mis­takes.”

Ryan’s com­ments came as the White House said Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has warned the De­fense De­part­ment not to “nickel and dime” service mem­bers who were vic­tims of fraud by overzeal­ous re­cruiters.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday he did not be­lieve Obama would sup­port a blan­ket waiver of re­pay­ments, but said California Na­tional Guard mem­bers should not be held re­spon­si­ble for “un­eth­i­cal con­duct or fraud per­pe­trated by some­one else.”

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter, mean­while, promised to re­solve a fes­ter­ing con­flict that has lin­gered for a decade.

The Los An­ge­les Times re­ported over the week­end that the Pen­tagon has de­manded that some sol­diers re­pay their en­list­ment bonuses after au­dits re­vealed over­pay­ments by the California Na­tional Guard. Re­cruiters un­der pres­sure to fill ranks and hit en­list­ment goals at the height of the two wars im­prop­erly of­fered bonuses of $15,000 or more to sol­diers who reen­listed, the news­pa­per re­ported.

If sol­diers refuse to pay the bonus back, they could face in­ter­est charges, wage gar­nish­ments and tax liens.

The Pen­tagon said late Tuesday that it in­structed at most 6,500 California Guard sol­diers to re­pay the en­list­ment bonuses. That num­ber is lower than a widely re­ported fig­ure that nearly 10,000 sol­diers have been told to re­pay part or all of their bonuses.

De­fense De­part­ment spokesman Maj. Jamie Davis said an au­dit more than five years in the mak­ing con­cluded last month that 1,100 sol­diers im­prop­erly re­ceived bonuses for which they were in­el­i­gi­ble. An­other 5,400 sol­diers had er­ro­neous pa­per­work that could have made them in­el­i­gi­ble.

The California Guard said Tuesday it has col­lected about $22 mil­lion from fewer than 2,000 sol­diers who im­prop­erly re­ceived bonuses and stu­dent loan aid.

Asked about the mat­ter at a news con­fer­ence Tuesday in Paris, Carter said the is­sue is com­plex and is be­ing han­dled by the deputy sec­re­tary of de­fense, Robert Work.

“The first thing I want to say is that any­body who vol­un­teers to serve in the armed forces of the United States de­serves our grat­i­tude and re­spect — pe­riod,” Carter said. Of­fi­cials are go­ing to look into the re­pay­ment prob­lem “and re­solve it,” Carter added, but of­fered no de­tails.

A de­fense au­tho­riza­tion bill passed by the House would es­tab­lish a statute of lim­i­ta­tions on the mil­i­tary’s abil­ity to re­cover fu­ture over­pay­ments and scru­ti­nize ex­ist­ing cases of service mem­ber debt. House and Se­nate ne­go­tia­tors are try­ing to fi­nal­ize the de­fense bill and pass it dur­ing the post-elec­tion, lame­duck ses­sion.

Ryan, R-Wis., called the bill an im­por­tant step to es­tab­lish a com­mon stan­dard for cor­rect­ing ac­count­ing er­rors in the mil­i­tary.

Mean­while, House and Se­nate over­sight com­mit­tees said they in­ves­ti­gat­ing the California Guard’s at­tempt to re­claim the re-en­list­ment bonuses.

The House Over­sight Com­mit­tee and the Se­nate

“The first thing I want to say is that any­body who vol­un­teers to serve in the armed forces of the United States de­serves our grat­i­tude and re­spect — pe­riod.”

— U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter

Com­mit­tee on Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­ment Af­fairs asked the Guard to turn over doc­u­ments and au­dits re­lated to the decade-old pay­ments.

The Na­tional Guard has said the bonuses were wrongly paid but its ef­fort to re­claim them from thousands of sol­diers and vet­er­ans in California and across the coun­try has caused pub­lic out­cry, in­clud­ing wide­spread crit­i­cism from mem­bers of Congress.

House Over­sight Chair­man Ja­son Chaf­fetz of Utah and three other Repub­li­cans said in a let­ter that of­fi­cials who mis­man­aged the bonus pro­grams must be “held ac­count­able.” The law­mak­ers said Guard of­fi­cials must turn over rel­e­vant doc­u­ments by Nov. 7.

Se­nate Gov­ern­ment Af­fairs Chair­man Ron Johnson of Wis­con­sin said it was “sim­ply un­ac­cept­able that the finest among us should be forced to pay — lit­er­ally — for the mis­man­age­ment and er­rors per­pe­trated by the Na­tional Guard lead­er­ship.”

“Our sol­diers de­serve bet­ter and it’s up to the De­part­ment of De­fense and Congress to fix this,” said Deb­o­rah Hoff­man, a spokes­woman for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Other states may have been af­fected, but “California is where the ma­jor­ity of this oc­curred,” said Na­tional Guard Bureau spokes­woman Laura Ochoa.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Robert D’An­drea, a re­tired Army ma­jor and Iraq war vet­eran, holds a frame with a photo of his team on his first de­ploy­ment to Iraq in his home in Los An­ge­les. Nearly 10,000 California Na­tional Guard sol­diers have been or­dered to re­pay huge en­list­ment bonuses a decade after sign­ing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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