Members of Congress assailed the California National Guard commander Wednesday for ordering thousands of soldiers and veterans to repay enlistment bonuses, saying the demands caused military families unnecessary financial distress, harmed recruiting and broke faith with soldiers.
With Maj. Gen. David Baldwin at the witness table, members of the House Armed Services Committee sharply criticized his now-blocked efforts to claw back millions of dollars from about 9,700 California Guard soldiers, many of whom fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We betrayed the trust of these troops, and there’s no excuse for that,” said Rep. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) at the first congressional hearing on the bonus scandal since Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered a suspension of the California Guard repayment program on Oct. 26.
Recent stories in The Times about the bonus repayment demands — in many cases more than a decade after the money was given — sparked a public outcry that spurred Carter to halt the program and is expected to produce congressional legislation on Thursday.
Some soldiers who got bonus demands were wounded in combat or saw their credit scores ruined by debt, The Times reported.
Baldwin said he had little choice but to try to recover the money because he lacked legal authority to waive the debts. The bonuses and other incentives given to each soldier or officer typically ranged from about $15,000 to as much as $50,000.
But he acknowledged that the heavy-handed effort — which sometimes involved garnishing wages, interest penalties and tax liens — had soured relations between California Guard leadership and thousands of its soldiers, most of whom did not know the bonuses they got were improper.
“I agree wholeheartedly that we do have a problem,” Baldwin said. “We’re going to have to reestablish trust with our soldiers and their families and with recruits.”
The full Senate is expected to approve a defense authorization bill Thursday that contains a provision intended to help the soldiers. The House already has approved the measure, so Senate approval would send it to President Obama for his signature.
If approved, the provision will expand Pentagon authority to waive repayments if the soldiers did not know they were getting improper bonuses because of poor record-keeping or other problems in the California Guard.
The provision would also authorize the Pentagon to repay California Guard soldiers who sent back their bonuses in recent years. The Pentagon also would be required to contact credit agencies to inform them that the debts were invalid.
Most of the nearly 10,000 California Guard soldiers sent repayment demands are expected to qualify.
Peter Levine, the Pentagon official charged by Carter with setting up a streamlined appeals process for the soldiers, told lawmakers that he aims to provide blanket debt forgiveness for all but about 1,000 soldiers, who got bonuses for which they were clearly ineligible.
Debts that are more than a decade old, that total $10,000 or less, or are owed by lower-ranking enlisted soldiers who had no way of knowing the bonuses were improper can be “screened out” and forgiven, Levine said.
Using those criteria, the number of cases can be reduced by as much as 90% this month, he said. The other cases will be reviewed individually by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, he said.
After several lawmakers acknowledged that they had only learned of the long-running bonus problem from recent Times stories, Baldwin conceded he should have pressed Congress harder to take action to forgive the debts.
His aides asked Congress to intervene in 2014 with a provision to allow waiving many of the debts, but dropped the matter after lawmakers balked due to the projected cost.
For the last two years, Baldwin said, the Guard had not sought a congressional fix.
“In hindsight, you’re right, I should have continued to make this a priority,” Baldwin said under questioning by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), who called the repayment effort a “big black mark on our Department of Defense’s record.”
Levine also criticized the California Guard, saying it spent years trying to recoup the bonuses without telling the Pentagon, a task that proved overwhelming.
“What the California Guard discovered was that they didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with all those cases,” Levine said. “They left thousands of cases hanging out there with the threat of recoupment, which added to the unfairness.”
Levine said that senior Pentagon officials were unaware of the lengthy delays that many California soldiers who appealed the debts were having.
“We were not aware of this until we read it in the newspaper, and that’s on us,” he said. “I think that we should have seen this before now, and I don’t know why we didn’t.”
The bonuses were initially given out by California Guard officers under pressure to meet Pentagon demands for troops at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It quickly spiraled into what prosecutors said was massive fraud by some members of the California Guard’s Recruiting Command.
Only one member of Recruiting Command, former Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, was convicted and imprisoned in the case. About 40 other soldiers, including about eight officers, were disciplined with reprimands or early retirement, records show.
Questioned by lawmakers whether Jaffe was a “scapegoat” while officers avoided prosecution, Baldwin said federal and state prosecutors decided whether to bring criminal charges, not his organization.
“I held many, many people responsible for their failure to provide proper oversight,” he said.
Baldwin acknowledged that Jaffe had faced intense pressure from superiors to help meet recruitment targets.
“She was overwhelmed. She was under tremendous pressure to help get the numbers … and had people pressing on her,” he said.