Capitol Alert

Illegal bonuses given to California National Guard soldiers should be forgiven, lawmakers say

Lori Torres Skypes with her family in Galt while having her morning coffee Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, while deployed in Afghanistan. She and her husband, Staff Sgt. Troy Torres, both in the National Guard, were affected when their incentive payments were taken back.
Lori Torres Skypes with her family in Galt while having her morning coffee Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, while deployed in Afghanistan. She and her husband, Staff Sgt. Troy Torres, both in the National Guard, were affected when their incentive payments were taken back. Sacramento Bee file, 2013

California’s two senators and House members from both parties are trying to block the Pentagon from recovering tens of millions of dollars worth of illegal retention and re-enlistment bonuses it awarded to California National Guard soldiers during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

They’re targeting the Defense Department’s effort to reclaim money improperly doled out by a California National Guard official who gamed the Army’s incentive system and distributed about $100 million in unwarranted bonuses between 2005 and 2010.

The Los Angeles Times over the weekend drew attention to the Army’s collection efforts, which ignited calls from lawmakers to fix the program.

The Sacramento Bee first reported on widespread abuse of incentives in the California National Guard retention office in 2010. Retired Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe in 2012 was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and required to repay $15.2 million after pleading guilty to fraud. Several other officers also later pleaded guilty to misusing the funds.

In most cases, soldiers did not know they were not entitled to the benefits. The Army now is demanding that they repay retention and re-enlistment bonuses that tended to range from $15,000 to $20,000 per soldier, a recovery program that The Bee described in 2013.

“I guess it’s always the private that gets beat up,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.

He announced Monday that’s he submitting an amendment to this year’s defense budget that would prohibit the Pentagon from spending money to recover retention and re-enlistment bonuses that were awarded to National Guard soldiers between 2006 and 2008.

He called the amendment a “red flag” that would tell the Defense Department to end the collection program. Separately, he said the lawmakers would submit a second bill to prevent the Army from repeating its bonus recovery drive.

In the past four years, the Army has collected $22 million from soldiers who should not have received retention or re-enlistment bonuses. In many cases, those recovery efforts distressed veterans trying to move on with their lives after wartime deployments.

“We have been vilified, like we have done something wrong and must be punished,” former Staff Sgt. Troy Torres of Galt told The Bee in 2013 when the National Guard demanded that he repay a $20,000 grant for education expenses.

Past efforts to help the soldiers have failed, including a measure that state military officials submitted to the defense budget two years ago that would have more quickly resolved complaints from soldiers. Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the proposal did not win support from his peers. He called it “half baked.”

The National Guard recently completed its final audit on misspending in the state’s incentive office. With that report, “now we know the extent of the problem,” Garamendi said. “It’s going from a problem that was below the surface to where we are today, where now it’s involving thousands of soldiers and it’s extraordinarily expensive for them.”

The California National Guard does not have the authority to waive the debts on its own, a spokesman wrote in a statement Sunday. But, he said, the National Guard would welcome a law that would forgive the improper bonuses.

Lawmakers from both parties on Monday demanded investigations into the revenue-collection program and called on the Obama administration to halt it.

“This is no way to treat those who have fulfilled their commitments to their country. They should be held harmless in light of the fraud that was perpetrated on them by overzealous recruiters,” wrote Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, in a letter that 23 of his colleagues signed.

California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein likewise wrote letters to Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking for an end to the recovery program. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on Congress to pass legislation that would prevent the military from collecting re-enlistment bonuses.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton

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