Californians file bills to stop Pentagon from reclaiming illegal Guard bonuses

By Sean Cockerham

scockerham@mcclatchydc.com

November 17, 2016 10:35 AM

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2011 file photo, California Army National Guard soldiers watch the arrival of the body of soldier Sean Walsh, who died on Nov. 16 during a combat operation in Afghanistan, at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File) Paul Sakuma AP
FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2011 file photo, California Army National Guard soldiers watch the arrival of the body of soldier Sean Walsh, who died on Nov. 16 during a combat operation in Afghanistan, at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File) Paul Sakuma AP
WASHINGTON

Californians in the U.S. House and Senate introduced legislation Thursday to permanently forbid the Pentagon from demanding that California National Guard veterans repay their bonuses.

The Defense Department last month suspended efforts to collect the illegal re-enlistment and retention bonuses given out to thousands of California soldiers at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that “while some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not.”

California lawmakers said the Pentagon’s temporary suspension of collection efforts isn’t enough and they want to make sure the money never has to be repaid. They also want the soldiers who already paid back their bonuses to be reimbursed by the government – with interest.

The California lawmakers said their legislation would “not cover National Guard members who engaged in fraud or misrepresentation” in collecting the bonuses, some of which totaled tens of thousands of dollars.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barber Boxer introduced the legislation on Thursday in the Senate. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, filed a companion measure in the House, where it was co-sponsored by 20 other California Democrats and three Republicans – Ed Royce of Fullerton, and Don Young of Alaska and Walter Jones of North Carolina.

“Legislative action is still needed to ensure these debts are waived and to repay soldiers who already paid back some or all of the bonuses they accepted in good faith,” Schiff said. “It should not fall on the shoulders of those who serve our country to pay for the mistakes of others that offered these incentives improperly or allowed the error to go undiscovered for so many years.”

The $100 million in bonuses and tuition assistance were wrongly provided to the California National Guard soldiers from 2005 to 2010. Several officers pleaded guilty to misuse of funds.

The Pentagon has been demanding that soldiers return incentives that tended to range from $15,000 to $20,000 per soldier.

The Pentagon last month said it would stop collection efforts until a better process is in place for soldiers to appeal.

Outgoing President Barack Obama has expressed some reluctance to just let all the soldiers keep the money.

“There is some evidence to indicate that some people shouldn’t have received bonuses and the Department of Defense does have a responsibility to taxpayers to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “And if there was a payment that was made in error, they have a responsibility to taxpayers to go and recover that money.”

He said the soldiers have to be treated fairly, though, and that doing so is a top priority of the president.

“The president’s expectation is that each case would be considered individually and each person who committed to serving this country is going to make sure that any promises that were made to them are kept, and that those individuals are going to be treated fairly,” Earnest said.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham