Lawmaker blasts Pentagon's 'boneheaded' effort to recoup bonuses from soldiers

Lawmaker blasts Pentagon's 'boneheaded' effort to recoup bonuses from soldiers
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Pentagon leadership is examining how to assist Army National Guard soldiers who are being forced to repay reenlistment bonuses they received mistakenly, a spokesman said Monday.  

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"This has the attention of our leadership and we're looking at this to see what we can do to assist," Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters. 

Soldiers who erroneously received such bonuses are now being pursued by debt collectors, charged interest on the "debt" and threatened with wage garnishment, tax liens and other actions. 

There will be no blanket debt waiver for the soldiers, said Davis, adding that Pentagon leaders are looking at how to assist soldiers filing waivers individually. 

"We have the ability to waive individual payments on a one-by-one basis,” he said, but “there's not currently the authority to waive these things writ large.” 

The Pentagon is seeking to recoup about $20 million it says recruiters erroneously paid to more than 10,000 soldiers in 2006 and 2007, in an effort to meet their recruiting goals during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The bonuses were supposed to be limited to soldiers in high-demand assignments, but federal investigators found that recruiters in every state offered them more liberally, particularly in California, according to a recent Los Angeles Times report. 

One California National Guard incentive manager pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing $15.2 million in fraudulent claims and was sentenced with 30 months in jail, while three other officers pleaded guilty to fraud and were sentenced with probation after paying restitution, according to the LA Times.  

California lawmakers have blasted the Pentagon's effort to recoup the bonuses from soldiers.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a former Marine and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Monday that ”even the simple request of asking soldiers to repay money contingent on reenlistment is disgraceful and insulting." 

"In fact, I find it difficult to believe that either you or your leadership team was aware that such a boneheaded decision was made to demand repayment — and I ask that you utilize your authority to influence a solution, including a possible legislative fix if determined necessary, that's in the best interest of the individuals and families impacted," he wrote.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the effort to "clawback" the bonuses is "immoral" and "extremely troubling," and called for an immediate fix. 

"The Department of Defense should immediately halt the retrieval of these debts, and when Congress returns in November, I will insist this issue be permanently resolved with language in the National Defense Authorization Act awaiting final passage in both Chambers," he said in a letter to Carter on Monday. 

"It is unconscionable that the burden of bureaucratic malfeasance and corruption over a decade ago is being borne by heroes who stepped forward, put themselves in harm’s way and fought to keep our nation safe. Please immediately inform our offices, in addition to the appropriate Congressional committees of jurisdiction, of the steps you will be taking to promptly fix this problem -- and in a way that makes whole every one of these veterans," he said.

Issa also wrote to the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, asking them to include a provision in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act to halt the Pentagon's recoupment.