On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that it would be repaying California Army National Guard soldiers and veterans who had their bonuses recouped in recent years for being “improperly awarded” between 2004 and 2010.
Federal investigators found that thousands of enlistment bonuses promised to members of the California National Guard had been improperly processed or granted to soldiers who should not have been eligible, prompting auditors to take action to recoup the money from soldiers as many as twelve years after they had been paid out. The state of California claimed that they had no other recourse at the time, citing federal law as the reason for notifying the soldiers and veterans of their newfound debt. The story only reached California and Federal legislators last year, as some soldiers began to speak out.
In October, Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter ordered a stop to the recoupment efforts until a thorough investigation could be completed. President Barack Obama also weighed in at the time via White House Spokesman, Josh Earnest, saying, “”The President makes the fair treatment of our service members a top priority. When a promise is made to our men and women in uniform, we should keep. That’s certainly the view of the President.”
It would seem that both men made good on their word. The Pentagon announced that it will be reimbursing or eliminating the debts incurred by the investigation for over 17,000 members of the California National Guard that were found to have received bonuses or student loan payments that should not have been authorized.
“The error was an error on the part of the government as to whether they were eligible” for the bonuses, acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine said. “They may have been misled as to whether they were eligible.”
In 2011, Army Master Sergeant Toni Jaffe, the California National Guard’s bonus and incentive manager, pleaded guilty to filing false claims in the amount of $15.2 million and was subsequently sentenced to thirty months in federal prison – but the bonuses, now debts, she authorized were still left to the individual service members to repay.
As of Tuesday, the majority of the soldiers will soon receive notice that they have been freed of that obligation, and returned any funds they have already contributed toward recouping the debt.
“We don’t give somebody a free education; we give them a free education in exchange for a service commitment and that’s … that’s part of the bargain,” Levine said. “The cases in California are different for several reasons. One is that many of these service members fulfilled their obligation.”
The Department of Defense is set to begin notifying National Guardsmen and veterans this month if they are among the approximately 17,000 to have their debts forgiven, and expects to have the entire process completed by July of this year. However, not all erroneous bonus payments are set to be forgiven, as auditors scoured the records of thousands of soldiers and found some to be legitimately fraudulent and others who did not fulfill the obligations set forth in their contracts.
“Most of the cases in which we’ll be recouping, we will be recouping because the soldier didn’t fulfill their commitment,” Levine said. “There will be some cases in which we have fraud or evidence of fraud or knowledge or should have known.”
While no large-scale audit of National Guard bonuses has been conducted nationwide, Levine believes these over-payments to be an isolated incident brought about by Master Sergeant Jaffe and her abuse of the system.
“Those internal control problems weren’t unique to California,” he said. “What we had in California was the vulnerability was systematically exploited. That’s why we had the problem there that we didn’t have elsewhere.”
Jaffe has since claimed that she was overworked and under significant pressure to approve bonuses in order to meet recruiting goals, which were high between 2004 and 2010 thanks to simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jaffe was the sole officer responsible for approving and processing recruiting bonuses for the region during that time frame.
Although as many as 17,000 soldiers have been notified that their bonuses and student loan payments would be recouped, only about 1,400 have actually been paying toward that debt thus far. The majority of those soldiers will receive refunds of the money they’ve paid toward the debt this year.
Image courtesy of the LA Times
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