California lawmakers work to help National Guard members keep enlistment bonuses

October 25, 2016
In The News

Lawmakers representing the Southland are joining the chorus of politicians calling on the Pentagon and the California National Guard to stop demanding repayment of enlistment bonuses that were granted incorrectly to service members.

Some legislators have also called for a House of Representatives probe into the matter and for a legislative fix to be passed.

Some 10,000 service men and women have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and face financial penalties if they refuse — after audits revealed prevalent overpayments by the California National Guard at the height of last decade’s wars overseas, the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend. Many had reportedly served multiple combat tours.

“I think it’s just appalling that the Guard would be going after these soldiers who served their country in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and accepted incentives to enlist that they had no reason to believe were inappropriate incentives,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, said in an interview Monday. “To get a call from someone...years after their duty overseas to say ‘you owe us thousands and thousands of dollars’ is an outrageous way to treat people who have answered the call of duty.”

The California National Guard said in a statement that it lacks the authority to unilaterally waive these debts but welcomes any law passed by Congress to do so.

There are more than 10,500 cases involving “improper bonus payments” to service members that have been processed by the California National Guard Incentives Assistance Team, said Laura Ochoa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense. Of those, at least 4,000 “have already been determined that they can keep their bonuses.” More than 3,000 cases in the system are still pending determination, she said.

“We take doing right by our service members very seriously and the senior leadership of the department is looking very closely at this matter,” Ochoa said in a statement, noting there is a formal review process by which affected service members can be relieved of responsibility to repay improperly awarded bonuses. “We continue to encourage service members affected by this situation to pursue those reviews and any relief they may be entitled to receive.”

Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was saddened to hear the news, which was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, and “shocked” that the California National Guard didn’t ask Congress for help in fixing the problem. He said he’s working on a legislative remedy that would be taken up by Congress when they are back in session next month.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, (R-Bakersfield), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) were also among those who criticized the effort to obtain repayments for enlistment bonuses.

McCarthy said in a statement that he would be requesting “a full brief from Army and National Guard leadership” and said the House “will investigate these reports to ensure our soldiers are fully honored for their service.”

The California Legislature’s Assembly Republican Caucus, in a Monday letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, also called on the Department of Defense to waive these repayments and “to find a solution to pay back those who have already returned their bonuses.”

A 2010 audit by the California National Guard discovered that 9,700 veterans who received reenlistment bonuses in 2006-07 were retroactively denied for the program. And some veterans will have to pay more than $15,000, the letter stated.

“This could bankrupt thousands of soldiers who have already sacrificed for their country,” the Caucus stated. “This is outrageous.”

Schiff said it’s worth asking Congress to not only fix the problem but to hold a hearing “to find out how we got into this problem to begin with” and ensure other states are not facing similar problems.

In May, 2012, the California National Guard’s former bonus and incentive manager — Retired Master Sgt. Toni L. Jaffe of Citrus Heights — was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for submitting $15.2 million dollars “in false and fraudulent claims” to the Department of Defense, according to the FBI. She pleaded guilty in August, 2011 to making a false claim against the U.S. and admitted routinely submitting false and fictitious claims between the fall of 2007 through October 2009 on behalf of her fellow California National Guard members. Jaffe admitted responsibility in her plea agreement for the millions in wrongfully paid bonuses and loan repayments.

Ochoa, the spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, said “the senior leadership” at the department “is doing everything they can” to resolve the issue. “It’s definitely a priority for us.”