Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook updates reporters about the California National Guard bonus repayments at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 3, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
By Tracy Fuga
Thousands of soldiers can breathe a sigh of relief after a Department of Defense official said on Tuesday they won’t have to repay bonuses that were mistakenly issued to them. Instead, the DOD is planning to focus on “only a few hundred cases” of soldiers who knew or should have known that they were wrongly receiving re-enlistment and student loan bonuses.
This announcement comes months after an article in the Los Angeles Times broke the news that more than 17,000 of current and former California guardsmen were being asked to repay their enlistment bonuses based on supposed ineligibility. The Times reported in October that only soldiers with certain assignments – for example, intelligence, civil affairs and some noncommissioned officer posts – were supposed to get bonuses. But investigators uncovered rampant fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials trying to meet enlistment targets during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to meet the demand for troops.
By July of this year, the DOD will have reimbursed veterans who were sent to collections for their enlistment bonuses, cleared thousands more of their potential debts outright and sent several hundred more to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records to make their cases, acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine said in a Tuesday press conference.
Recouping money wrongly paid out is a “fact of life” in the military, Levine said, but the vast majority of the affected soldiers “may have been misled" into taking the bonuses. Therefore, their debts should and most likely will be forgiven.
“If the service members fulfilled their service commitment and there’s no obvious reason to believe that they knew or should have known that it was an erroneous payment, then we don't need further review to get rid of that case,” Levine said at a Pentagon briefing.
Soldiers who have been cleared should receive notification within a month, Levine said. In addition, the Pentagon will notify credit bureaus and attempt to assist troops whose credit was adversely affected by the bonus errors that mainly resulted from fraud committed by Guard administrators.
Most of the improper bonuses in California were processed by Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, the California Guard’s incentive manager, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing false claims of $15.2 million and was sentenced in 2012 to 30 months in federal prison.
“When she pleaded guilty, Jaffe admitted that from the fall of 2007 through October 2009, she routinely submitted false and fictitious claims on behalf of her fellow California National Guard members,” the Department of Justice said in a statement. “Jaffe admitted that she submitted claims to pay bonuses to members of the California National Guard whom she knew were not eligible to receive the bonuses and to pay off officer’s loans, even though she knew the officers were ineligible for loan repayment.”
Three officers also pleaded guilty to fraud and were put on probation after paying restitution.