Grounded pilots raised to key posts in California National Guard

Four pilots who are under criminal investigation for receiving possibly illegal payments of public funds have been appointed to key leadership posts in the California National Guard's 144th Fighter Wing based in Fresno. Two former commanders, also targeted in the probe, previously were relieved of their command.

Guard officials recently acknowledged that the pilots who assumed the top jobs last fall – Wing Commander Col. James McKoane, Vice Commander Lt. Col. Victor S. Sikora, Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Sean Navin and Operations Commander Lt. Col. Douglas Weskamp – are subjects of the criminal probe and have been grounded indefinitely.

The investigation stems from a federal audit, conducted last year, that describes as routine double and triple dipping by about nine pilots, alleging that they improperly collected more than one paycheck for a single day's work. Payments characterized as illegal or improper went on for years, and in some cases pilots roughly doubled their annual salaries, according to federal auditors, internal e-mails and memos reviewed or obtained by The Bee.

Last year the federal Air Force Office of Special Investigations launched a criminal probe into actions by the pilots, who could face legal or financial penalties if found culpable by a court or military administrative process. That investigation is ongoing.

In late September, Maj. Gen. Dennis G. Lucas, then commander of the California Air National Guard, appointed McKoane to the job of wing commander – the highest post in the fighter wing – according to California Guard spokesman Maj. Thomas Keegan. Just a week earlier, Lucas had learned that McKoane was grounded by Maj. Gen. Mary J. Kight, the Guard's adjutant general and top officer, and that the criminal investigation into pay irregularities involving McKoane and the other pilots had begun.

McKoane then selected the other leaders.

Lucas retired Nov. 30 and McKoane referred inquiries to Keegan. None of the other pilots responded to requests for comment.

Lucas considered Mc- Koane's involvement in the activities under investigation before giving him the job as wing commander, Keegan said via e-mail. He noted that McKoane is serving as "interim commander." In a later interview, Keegan said a permanent wing commander has been selected, but no replacement date has been set.

The fighter wing – comprising 1,028 full-time and part-time Guard members, including 33 pilots – protects U.S. airspace in case of attack and responds to emergency alerts.

Asked if the Guard views the grounding and criminal investigation of the pilot commanders as a problem for the wing, Keegan said Guard leadership "regards the current situation at the 144th Fighter Wing as a top priority and continues to address and refine actions necessary to support the safe accomplishment of the ongoing Air Sovereignty Alert mission while retaining continuity and accountability."

In August, as Guard leaders considered how to address practices that auditors characterized as improper, Mc- Koane, then operations commander, gave a presentation to his pilots that reads like a pep talk. It covered pay and work issues raised by the federal auditors. In the PowerPoint, obtained by The Bee, McKoane said certain payments regarded as customary would end, but characterized any dual-compensation errors as minor.

One of his slides was titled "My Goals," and reads, in part, "get all the pay we can earn" – a practice at the heart of the criminal probe.

Regarding McKoane's remark on pilot pay, Keegan said: "Regardless of context, it's an unfortunate comment that is not consistent with Air Force core values."

Asked to comment about the wisdom of placing four grounded officers who are under criminal investigation into command roles, Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, director of the Air National Guard nationwide, said: "I have great faith and confidence in the men and women of the 144th Fighter Wing."

"These are certainly trying times for the rank and file," Wyatt added. "It's unfortunate the alleged actions of a few have brought discredit to those men and women."

Elizabeth Hillman, a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law who is a former Air Force officer and professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, called the slotting of implicated pilots into command positions "batty," and said "it would never happen in the active-duty Air Force."

"Being under investigation is not the same as being charged," Hillman said, but "their fitness for a position of high leadership is at least in question."

This week, state Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Lou Correa, a Santa Ana Democrat, announced that he will convene a hearing on March 22 about problems in the Guard, including allegations of dual compensation in the 144th Fighter Wing.

The hearing, he said, will follow up on a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly veterans committees in November that looked at alleged fraud of up to $100 million in bonuses and student loan repayments to Guard members. That hearing was sparked by a Bee investigation published in October.

Correa said he was unaware that pilots implicated in the dual-payment investigation had been appointed to lead the wing. He said the hearing would address "any outstanding issues, or new issues, with regard to the performance of the 144th Air Wing or any aspect of the California National Guard."