The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed an unprecedented strain on our nation’s National Guard forces, shifting the Guard from a domestic reserve force to an active part of combat operations. So-called “weekend warriors” – men and women with homes, jobs and families who enlisted in the Guard as reservists – have found themselves deployed for extended tours of duty overseas. The National Guard’s new combat role has increased the Guard’s need for new members at the same time as it has discouraged “weekend warrior” types from joining up and sparked debate on what, exactly, the Guard’s purpose should be.
Adding to these nationwide stresses, Guard officials in California have been accused of lining their own pockets with money meant to provide incentives toward enlistment and re-enlistment. Federal auditor Capt. Ronald S. Clark alleges that $100 million intended for student-loan payments and cash bonuses was improperly distributed to officers, recruiters and staff by Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, manager of California National Guard incentive programs from 1986 until 2009.
Sacramento Bee reporter Charles Piller told Need to Know that he was alerted to the possibility of corruption within the incentives program last July, when he received a tip from “a confidential source inside the Guard,” an “extremely authoritative person, someone who had the means to know and understand the extent of the corruption that was alleged and someone who had access to detailed info associated with that corruption.” The results of Piller’s subsequent investigation into the matter, aided by Capt. Clark, were published in an October Bee expose.
“California’s incentives program was operated as a slush fund, doled out improperly to hundreds of soldiers with fabricated paperwork, scant supervision and little regard for the law,” the article concluded, adding that evidence of corruption in the system was “overlooked or ignored by recruiters and officers up the chain of command.”
The California Guard’s incentive programs are currently under federal investigation; this story is the subject of a piece in this week’s episode of Need to Know.
Charles Piller’s continued investigations into misconduct in the California National Guard exposed another scandal in December. Piller’s reporting revealed that Fresno-based pilots from the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard were receiving full pay for regular shifts of “alert duty,” in which pilots remain on call in case of emergency, performed after the pilots had concluded their regular workdays. According to the Bee investigation,
“They wait for the call in a ready room near their jets, surfing the Web, working out, eating, talking with colleagues, watching TV or sleeping.”
Air National Guard pilots called it “dozing for dollars,” and used it to swell their salaries by tens of thousands of dollars. It was an easy way to make extra money after work. But earning two paydays on one calendar day, known as “double dipping,” is prohibited by federal and military regulations, and to work alert shifts, pilots were violating the “crew rest” rules meant to ensure that they are adequately rested and capable of performing their duties safely. Pilots were also earning standby pay for time spent at home and even on vacation provided that they could reach the base within 12 hours.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations has already begun a criminal probe into the case. Though they declined to provide details of the probe for Piller’s article, it appears that this is another case of corruption among officers. “All the pilots under investigation,” Piller notes, including the Fresno unit’s ex-commander, Col. Gary Taylor, “are officers with a rank of at least captain.”
According to Col. John Crocker, governmental and public affairs director for the Guard, all suspicious payments have stopped.
Piller says that dozens of Guard members have thanked him for his coverage. “These are folks who feel strongly that the Guard is a vital institution that needs to be improved and cleaned up,” he said. “This kind of public interest reporting is vital because so often these problems get swept under the rug because people in positions of power have a vested interest in minimizing the damage to their own organization and their own careers.”
Read Piller’s original stories, as well as several follow-up pieces, at the Sacramento Bee.