Three California Army National Guard captains pleaded guilty to misdemeanor fraud Tuesday in cases involving incentive payments in return for service commitments. Each faces up to a year in prison, fines and restitution of funds stolen.
The pleas, the latest in a federal investigation into thousands of improper bonuses and loan repayments for Guard members, came from:
Capt. Yasser Brenes, 29, a recruiter who will pay $27,000 in restitution and up to $54,000 in fines.
Capt. Raymond Allard, 45, an educational services officer who will pay $29,000 in restitution and up to $58,000 in fines.
Capt. Thomas Nys, 49, who will pay $20,000 in restitution and up to $40,000 in fines.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron May told The Bee that his Los Angeles office has coordinated closely with the California Guard, which he said would soon sever its relationship with the three officers.
The long-standing federal probe is winding down, May said, but more charges or plea agreements might be announced.
A Bee investigation first exposed the problems in 2010. It showed that high Guard officers enabled the fraud or failed to detect it despite widespread evidence of wrongdoing among recruiting officials. In response to The Bee stories, federal authorities launched a nationwide crackdown on illegality in such programs, some California Guard officials were reassigned and others were removed from the Guard.
The incentive program provided cash bonuses to new recruits or soldiers who signed up for additional terms of service, or repaid their school loans.
Hundreds of soldiers, including many officers, received incentives through fraud or after mistakenly breaking program rules.
Recruitment officers who were under pressure to increase troop strength orchestrated or colluded in such actions. One such recruiter, Brenes, "should have known better" than to exploit incentive programs that were central to his work, May said.
Last month retired Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, 53, a former incentives program manager, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and required to repay $15.2 million after pleading guilty to fraud. Jaffe admitted to submitting a $20,000 fraudulent claim on behalf of Allard.
"Please don't say anything to anyone on this," Jaffe told him via email, according to her plea agreement. Allard replied, "Toni, I owe you. Whenever you want to cash in that token, let me know."
A Guard auditor estimated the total cost of improper payments at up to $100 million. May said about 10,000 such payments were made over several years and that "the National Guard is going after everybody who wrongfully received money."
That process could take months or years to complete, said Maj. Thomas Keegan, a Guard spokesman. Last month he said court-martial proceedings have been initiated against eight fraud suspects, including six commissioned officers. Others have received reprimands or their cases are undergoing legal review. On Wednesday, Keegan declined to comment further until administrative actions have been completed.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee and an Air Force Reserve officer, said "these recent guilty pleas show that Guard members who violate the law will be caught and will be punished."