New deal pro­tects Cal­i­for­nia guard mem­bers of­fered bonuses

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY RICHARD LARDNER

Thou­sands of Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard troops will not have to re­pay en­list­ment bonuses and ben­e­fits they re­ceived a decade af­ter they signed up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, ac­cord­ing to a deal struck be­tween House and Se­nate ne­go­tia­tors.

The agree­ment is in­cluded in a must-pass de­fense pol­icy bill filed Wed­nes­day and await­ing an ex­pected House vote Friday, fol­lowed by ac­tion in the Se­nate next week.

The Pen­tagon had de­manded the money af­ter au­dits re­vealed over­pay­ments by the Guard un­der pres­sure to fill ranks and hit en­list­ment goals. But law­mak­ers are or­der­ing the Pen­tagon to waive re­claim­ing the bonuses un­less there is ev­i­dence that shows ser­vice mem­bers “knew or rea­son­ably should have known” that they weren’t el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive the money.

The Guard of­fered en­list­ment bonuses of as much as $15,000 and stu­dent loan aid to nearly 10,000 sol­diers at the height of the two wars in the 2000s. Mem­bers of the Cal­i­for­nia con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion and vet­er­ans lead­ers ex­pressed out­rage over the Pen­tagon’s de­ci­sion to force troops who had served over­seas to re­turn money when they said the fault lay with mil­i­tary re­cruiters.

“It’s clear that the Pen­tagon had all the right au­thor­i­ties to pre­vent this mess in the first place, but the ben­e­fit now is that Congress is go­ing to keep the in­di­vid­u­als over­see­ing this hon­est and the process open all the way through,” said GOP Rep. Dun­can Hunter of Cal­i­for­nia, a mem­ber of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

The deal ap­plies be­yond Cal­i­for­nia troops and cov­ers any mem­ber of the armed forces. It shifts the bur­den to De­fense Depart­ment of­fi­cials to prove that a ser­vice mem­ber was not el­i­gi­ble for a bonus or an­other type of spe­cial pay and know­ingly took the ben­e­fit.

A re­view board is to ex­am­ine all the bonuses and stu­dent loan re­pay­ment con­tracts awarded be­tween 2004 and 2015 “for which the depart­ment has rea­son to be­lieve a re­coup­ment of pay may be war­ranted,” the mea­sure states.

Any ser­vice mem­ber de­ter­mined not to have been el­i­gi­ble for the bonus pay or aid must be con­tacted by ser­vice of­fi­cials and given the op­por­tu­nity to sub­mit “doc­u­men­tary and other ev­i­dence,” ac­cord­ing to the pro­vi­sion.

The board is directed to de­ter­mine re­coup­ment of a bonus un­war­ranted “un­less the board makes an af­fir­ma­tive de­ter­mi­na­tion, by a pre­pon­der­ance of the ev­i­dence, that the mem­ber knew or rea­son­ably should have known” they weren’t en­ti­tled to the money.

The mea­sure re­quires the De­fense Depart­ment to re­im­burse sol­diers who al­ready had re­paid the govern­ment, and to no­tify credit agen­cies that a pre­vi­ously re­ported debt “was never valid.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, said the leg­is­la­tion will en­sure sol­diers who were re­quired to pay back bonuses and ben­e­fits “they re­ceived in good faith are not the sub­ject of claw­backs both now or in the fu­ture.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Nearly 10,000 Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard sol­diers were or­dered to re­pay huge en­list­ment bonuses a decade af­ter sign­ing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a new deal signed on Capi­tol Hill re­verses that de­ci­sion.

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