By LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON — Years after about 1,900 National Guard and Reserve soldiers were embroiled in a recruiting bounty scandal, U.S. Army investigators are reviewing cases and correcting records because some people were wrongly blamed and punished, army officials said Thursday.
The Army’s Criminal Investigations Division said it would complete a review of the bulk of the 1,900 troops by the end of this year to identify and begin correcting errors. CID said agents during the initial investigation may have misunderstood the facts or failed to follow proper procedures and mistakenly added the soldiers’ names to an FBI criminal database and records. of the Pentagon.
Officials said that at the time, CID agents were grappling with a massive investigation involving 100,000 people and hundreds of thousands of dollars in potentially fraudulent bonus payments.
“Put simply, proper procedures were not always followed,” CID Director Greg Ford said in a statement provided to the AP.
Ford said Thursday that so far the CID has reviewed the cases of about 900 people, and the majority of them require some type of corrective action. He said up to 200 of them have been completed and corrected, and individuals will be notified. He said “a number” of individuals contacted CID earlier this year saying they believed they were incorrectly listed in the FBI database, and that when agents began to review the records, they found problems with the cases. Accordingly, he said he ordered a review of all cases.
“The CID is fully committed to identifying and correcting all records to bring them into line with the documentation and evidence on file,” Ford told reporters Thursday. “The CID takes our responsibilities in this area very seriously. And it is clear that we have failed in many of these investigations.”
The new investigation comes as National Guard Bureau leaders are pushing to launch another recruiting bonus program, in a bid to increase the number of lagging enlistments. And they want to make sure that any new program won’t have the same issues of fraud and abuse.
Guard leaders have talked about providing incentive pay to recruiters and Guard troops who recruit new recruits. The Army Guard missed its recruiting target for the exercise that ended Sept. 30, and more troops were leaving each month than enlisted.
“With the right checks and balances in place, we could really help make every guard a recruiter by paying them a bonus for anyone they bring into the organization who is able to complete their military training,” said Gen. Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters in September. He said the procedures needed to be corrected so that the fraud does not happen again.
The Army began an audit of the recruiting program in 2011, amid complaints that Guard and Reserve soldiers and recruiters were fraudulently collecting bounties during the peak years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to fill in the rows. In the program, which was run by contractors, soldiers were offered $2,000 if they referred someone to recruiters who eventually enlisted.
Audits revealed overpayments, fraud by recruiters and others, and poor oversight. The program was canceled in 2012 and the Army CID was called in to investigate the cases.
Between 2012 and 2016, the CID opened approximately 900 files. In total, officials said, about 286 soldiers received some type of administrative sanction or action from their military commanders, and more than 130 were prosecuted in civilian courts. The soldiers repaid more than $478,000 to the US Treasury and paid nearly $60,000 in fines, officials said this week.
The refunds, however, sparked a backlash from Congress, with soldiers complaining of being wrongly targeted. In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered the Pentagon to suspend efforts to recoup enlistment bonuses, which in some cases amounted to more than $25,000. Officials argued at the time that many soldiers receiving the bonuses were unaware that the payments were improper or unauthorized.
Overall, officials said 1,900 names had been added to an FBI criminal database and hundreds more were listed in an internal Department of Defense database as someone doing the wrong. subject of a criminal investigation. Such lists can harm a soldier’s career, affect promotions, or – in the case of FBI data – prevent someone from getting a job or a firearms license.
Soldiers can request a review of their file, and dozens have already done so. The CID review will determine whether the soldiers’ names should be removed from either database, officials said, and individuals will be notified of the results.
Officials said each case is different and it’s unclear how many – if any – could receive compensation, back pay or other retroactive benefits. The whole process could take until spring 2024.
Hokanson said the previous bonus program worked in that it attracted thousands of recruits and could work again if executed correctly. And he said Guard leaders across the country would like to try something like this again. No final decision on launching a new bonus program has been made, according to the Guard.