About that California National Guard story…

What a difference six years make.

Sacramento Bee, October 2010: “Massive fraud at California Guard, officials allege”:

From 1986 until her retirement last year, Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe’s job with the California Army National Guard was to give away money – the federally subsidized student-loan repayments and cash bonuses the Guard is supposed to use to tempt new recruits and entice Guard members to sign on for another stint.

Instead, according to a Guard auditor turned federal whistle-blower, as much as $100 million has gone to soldiers who didn’t qualify for the incentives, including some who got tens of thousands of dollars more than the program allows.

That’s an entirely different perspective than the stories this week about the hardships suffered by those forced to repay incentives that they should not have received.

The article continues (emphasis added):

Early in the audit, Clark said, he became concerned that officers implicated as recipients or enablers of improper payments might attempt to interfere with his work. So for the first time in his career, Clark said, he became a whistle-blower. He secretly contacted the Internal Revenue Service and FBI.

“I don’t like grifters,” Clark said. “And I’m disgusted – at times, ashamed – to wear the same uniform as those who steal taxpayer funds or protect thieves.”

It’s quite a read. The article concludes (emphasis added):

His concern was heightened, Clark said, when he heard about California National Guard Maj. Jeffrey Nichols. Guard documents show that Nichols received $45,000 in loan repayments in 2008 without the required contract on file. The amounts exceeded program limits, the loan was obtained too far back to qualify, and Nichols’ officer commission date made him ineligible.

Around the time his student loans were repaid, Nichols was picked to head the national incentives program at the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. Nichols, who now works to reduce National Guard attrition, declined to comment.

Clark said he began to worry that the National Guard Bureau might exercise its legal right to forgive improper payments, to avoid embarrassment and possible impact on recruiting. At that point, he said, he contacted federal agents.

“I came to realize that this criminal matter would be multi-jurisdictional, and would require vast resources to investigate,” Clark said. “Soon National Guard officials will know this is for real and that there are no more lumpy rugs to hide stuff under.”

What an interesting choice to head the National Guard Bureau incentives program!

Also, the phrase “legal right to forgive improper payments” flies in the face of more recent assertions that the DoD’s hand are tied vis. possible forgiveness of innocent over-payments.

Three years later, via the Merced Sun-Star: “Guard figures involved in the incentive fraud”:

From 2000 to 2010, thousands of California National Guard members improperly or illegally received enlistment incentive payments. Guard audits to date have found that at least 115 service members – most of them officers – committed fraud or acted improperly. Following are some of key players who benefited from or led the problem program, which The Sacramento Bee exposed in October 2010. Many have faced discipline under the Guard’s current leader, Adjutant Gen. David S. Baldwin.

At that point (in 2013), the emphasis of the reporting was still on the fraud angle.

This week, the story suddenly reappeared, but with an entirely different cast:

From The New York Times comes “Soldiers Struggling to Repay Enlistment Bonuses Issued in Error,” with a particularly manipulative first paragraph:

After 21 years in the military, three deployments, and a roadside bomb blast that left him bleeding and unconscious, Christopher Van Meter got a letter from the Pentagon saying he improperly received enlistment bonuses and now owed the government $46,000

Similarly, from The Los Angeles Times: “Thousands of California soldiers forced to repay enlistment bonuses a decade after going to war”:

Short of troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, the California National Guard enticed thousands of soldiers with bonuses of $15,000 or more to reenlist and go to war.

Please forgive my cynicism if I read that as an attempt by the Times to frame the whole thing as apple-cheeked innocents, cruelly used by the war machine, in over their heads. The piece isn’t much for subtlety, any more than its headline.

And now, of course, comes the political fallout: “Pentagon: ‘Looking at’ National Guard bonus complaints” (emphasis added):

The Pentagon on Monday said complaints about California National Guard troops forced to repay old bonuses have “the attention of our leadership,” while a San Diego County congressman’s staff says current law allows waiver of the debt.

So we have a both a National Guard auditor and a San Diego area Congressional office both assuming a right to waive. Interesting.

I tend to agree with Josh Earnest and the White House, which doesn’t happen very often:

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday he did not believe Obama would support a blanket waiver of repayments, but said California National Guard members should not be held responsible for “unethical conduct or fraud perpetrated by someone else.”

Of course, that presupposes that said individual members were not among those who knew that the fraud was occurring, and chose to look the other way–or worse, chose to directly enable it.

But if you’d merely read the headlines, you’d likely have an entirely different perspective on this story.

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