By Terri Moon Cronk
US Defense Department officials met the goal Defense Secretary Ash Carter set for establishing a process to handle resolution of bonuses paid erroneously to thousands of California National Guard soldiers several years ago, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
In October, Carter directed suspension of all efforts to recoup money from the soldiers, Cook said. “He also asked the department to come up with a streamlined, centralized process to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of our service members and the rapid resolution of cases by Jan. 1,” he added.
Peter Levine, performing the duties of acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, led the process team, and he updated reporters today on how DoD is resolving cases with a new process involving some 17,500 California Guard members who could face recoupment.
Levine emphasized that recoupment is a fact of life, and the Army averages 100,000 such cases at any given time. “Sometimes the member makes a mistake, sometimes the service does,” he noted.
Since the secretary’s October announcement, Levine said, he has worked closely with the National Guard Bureau, the Army Audit Agency, the Army Review Boards Agency and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to set up a process for the California cases.
Levine said the process involves screening cases to see if sufficient information is available for resolution, and putting what he called the “hard cases” before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records for an individualized review in which the soldiers will have an opportunity to make their case.
California’s 17,500 Cases
The 17,500 cases were put into two categories, Levine said. The first category includes about 1,400 cases in which the California National Guard established that a debt exists and referred them to DFAS for recoupment.
The Army Audit Agency and the Army Review Board Agency reviewed those cases, Levine said, based on whether the service members fulfilled their service commitment and whether they had any obvious reason to believe they received an erroneous payment.
“We think we can get rid of about half of the cases on that basis,” he said. “So [for] half of the 1,400, we would expect to be notifying soldiers that they’re being relieved of any debt.” If they have already been subject to recoupment, he added, they’ll be reimbursed.
The California National Guard flagged the remaining cases for review. Guard officials notified many soldiers of the potential that they would be facing debt collection, but didn’t take further action, Levine explained. “So those 16,000, essentially the Sword of Damocles is hanging over the soldiers, but debt collection hadn’t been started,” he added.
Recoupment Case Nuances
Because a debt has yet to be established in the remaining 16,000 cases, Levine said, he expects that the screening process will eliminate about 15,000 of them.
Those that remain unresolved at that point will then go through the same process as the 1,400 for which a debt had been established before this effort began. “The bottom line is we expect … several hundred cases — but in all likelihood, fewer than 1,000 — to go before the Boards for Correction of Military Records,” Levine said.
Soldiers Can Present Their Cases
In each of those cases, he explained, the soldier will have an opportunity to present his or her case and argue that even though there’s enough doubt to put it before a records-correction board, there isn’t enough to justify debt collection and that therefore, the debt should be forgiven.
“We are well along in that process, Levine said. “We have established the process as the secretary directed. We think that we have the BCMR staffed up. They’re prepared to hear the cases … by the July deadline established by the secretary.”
“We are very hopeful that we will not have any kind of similar problems going forward,” Levine said. “The bottom line is we think we’ve met the secretary’s goal of rapid, equitable treatment for our soldiers and that we have in place a process that will protect the taxpayers, but will also be fair to our soldiers in terms of collecting debts,” he said.