- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2016

Two years ago, news headlines blared that the nation’s oldest army, the National Guard, was awash in one of the biggest defense fraud investigations ever, destined to reach nearly $100 million in stolen bonus money.

There were accusations that thousands of “recruiting assistants,” or RAs — a special cadre created in 2005 to steer young men and women to a war-depleted ArmyGuard — might be punished, according to a Senate subcommittee chairwoman. Adding to the headlines: The subcommittee declared that the Recruiting Assistance Program itself, called GRAP, created by generals in the National Guard Bureau headquarters, was illegal because it violated a law on congressional appropriations.

Today, after seven years of audits and a nationwide probe by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, updated numbers do document fraud. But they are far short of the ballyhooed rampant larceny. The prediction by CID that nearly $100 million was stolen stands in contrast to a proven theft of $6 million by Guard RAs, according to Army figures provided to The Washington Times.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said two years ago that 2,000 RAs may be found to be thieves. Today, of 94,329 recruiting assistants, 492 have been determined guilty or suspected of fraud. The Army says the vast majority of the 94,329 were with the Guard, where the program was created and started in 2005. (Guard RAs received $338 million, the active Army $7 million and the Army Reserve $28 million.)

“There’s some real anger in the Guard community over this whole thing,” said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States. “The $100 million was absurd from the start. Doesn’t justify the largest CID investigation in history.”

Supporters are angry not just about the hype and a damaged Guard reputation. They ask why the Army has announced no punishment against the top brass who were supposed to be overseeing payouts.

Meanwhile, as many as 200 CID agents nationwide have been hunting down lower-echelon guardsmen over, in some cases, a few thousand dollars.

Jeff Addicott, a former Army judge advocate, said his client, Maj. John Suprynowicz, has been targeted for more than two years by CID agents who seem bent on ruining his career.

“The fact that none of the high-ranking officials, military or civilian, has been held accountable is hypocrisy of the highest order,” said Mr. Addicott, a law professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, who directs the school’s Center for Terrorism Law.

“Responsibility and accountability start at the top, not the bottom,” he said.

The Army investigates

Recruiting assistants were paid $2,000 or more for each person they referred to a recruiter who subsequently enlisted and went to boot camp.

Of the 492 determined to be guilty or suspected of fraud, the majority — 305 assistants — received $15,000 or less each. Of that group, 124 assistants took less than $5,000 each.

Some of the amounts are so small that the Justice Department passed on prosecution. In some cases, the Army then shopped the cases to local and state prosecutors to bring criminal charges.

Liz Ullman, a business owner in Colorado, began a campaign to expose what she considers the CID’s overreaching. She started a Web page, Defend Our Protectors, and communicated with guardsmen under investigation.

“Their lives are being turned upside down,” she said. “They are losing their jobs.”

Maj. Suprynowicz, a decorated Iraq War combatant, is one of those who the Army says took money for people he had no role in recruiting. Over five years, he was one of only 19 recruiting assistants to receive $75,000 or more, in his case $85,000 in bonuses.

Maj. Suprynowicz vehemently denies wrongdoing. He said CID agents have sullied his name within the Joint Base San Antonio command and stopped his promotion to lieutenant colonel.

“I have nothing to hide, just regret for being involved and having an association with what turned out to be a debacle of a program,” he told The Times.

In a new wrinkle, the Army confirmed to The Times that it is trying to reclaim an unspecified amount of money paid to Document and Packaging Broker Inc. (Docupak), the Alabama firm that won the $459 million Army contract to pay the bonuses.

“While it would not be appropriate to comment on the specifics of a matter in potential litigation, the Army is seeking recovery of funds we believe were overpaid to Docupak under the GRAP,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “The Army is following the prescribed path under federal procurement laws and regulations, and affording Docupak all the rights to which it is entitled.”

As for accusations that the RA program was illegal, the Army says it has not made that determination.

The Guard goes to two wars

In December, the National Guard will celebrate its 380th anniversary as the country's oldest army, formed in 1636 as a citizen’s militia in Massachusetts.

People think of the Guard as each state’s emergency force, with the governor as commander in chief. Its historic mission is to quell civil disturbances, such as last year’s riots in Baltimore, and to respond to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But these citizen soldiers do far more today. They are part of the Army’s “total force,” called to active duty to fight alongside brigades, bringing the same tanks, choppers and artillery to battle.

In response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Guard’s dual mission grew in importance to the point that Congress enacted a law to elevate the chief of the National Guard Bureau, currently Gen. Frank J. Grass, to a seat on the ultimate military board — the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

By 2005, simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were driving people away from the Guard. Weekend duty and spot call-ups were one thing, but recruits did not necessarily sign up for long, risky deployments away from jobs and families.

The Guard was failing to meet recruiting goals — by a lot. In July 2005, it counted 330,000 soldiers, 20,000 short of Congress’ authorization. The Guard Bureau needed new thinking to replenish the ranks. Out of the crisis, a new cadre emerged: the recruiting assistant.

On paper, the process worked like this: Announce to the force that there was a financial incentive for persuading a citizen to enlist. A non-active-duty soldier would receive $1,000 for the enlistment and another $1,000 if the recruit went to boot camp.

The Army awarded the contract to Docupak to disburse the cash, and it hired RAs as subcontractors. Guardsmen RAs filled out bonus applications online, and Docupak would verify the recruit’s name and pay the money. Docupak also received a bonus for each recruit.

By raw appearances, the Guard Bureau’s brainchild proved a stunning success: Nearly 150,000 recruits Army-wide joined via RAs, erasing the Guard’s manpower shortfall.

But looking back, Army officials see that the RA program was flawed. Oversight was lax. Docupak did not always check with recruits to verify who had spoken with them and referred them.

Two years into the program, Docupak picked up hints of fraud and notified the Army. CID investigated a smattering of cases and came to believe it had discovered a systemic nationwide scandal.

The Army did not commence a full-blown audit until 2011. The disturbing results led the Army in 2012 to end the Recruiting Assistance Program. By 2014, CID estimated that total fraud could reach $100 million. It told Senate staffers that it had embarked on one of its largest fraud investigations in history.

‘No excuse’

The fraud worked this way: An RA would give Docupak the name of someone he or she had never met. In other cases, a recruiter conspired with RAs by providing the names and Social Security numbers in exchange for kickbacks. In perhaps the most egregious case, a ring of Army soldiers in Texas reaped $244,000 this way.

The highest-ranking accused officer is a now-retired major general who received money for the enlistment of a physician. The investigation showed he played no role in the doctor’s enlistment. With the statute of limitations expired on a fraud charge, his commander issued a reprimand, which the general is contesting in retirement.

The scandal’s dimensions, complete with fraud estimates that have proved overblown to date, became public at a February 2014 hearing before Ms. McCaskill, who then chaired the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight.

“Once we finally began to open the spigot, you all have been very, very cooperative,” she said to a panel of Army witnesses.

Joseph Bentz, an Army auditor, testified: “On behalf of the Guard Bureau, the oversight of the contract was insufficient. The contracting officers’ representatives were responsible for that oversight. They believed that the contractor [Docupak] was responsible for the oversight and control of the program.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, who directed the Guard Bureau at the birth of GRAP, testified: “I didn’t know the irregularities. And, of course, you can’t blame me. We thought we had a great program running. I reviewed documents on a daily basis — you know, what was happening in the program. And I had a lot of things on my plate, no excuse.”

He said that within two years, the Guard reached its goal of 350,000 soldiers.

Philip Crane, Docupak’s president, said the RA program brought in 149,000 people, all told.

One officer’s story

For Maj. Suprynowicz, life in the National Guard was good. The infantryman survived two deployments to Iraq with the Texas National Guard 72nd Division. He earned two Bronze Stars and an Combat Infantryman’s badge.

Off active duty, he taught and performed other academic chores at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where he met lots of young people ripe for joining the Guard. When the Recruiting Assistance Program debuted in 2005, he dove in.

In 2006, he received $4,000. The next year, $49,000. By 2010, his last year as an RA, he had collected $85,000 for 41 recruits, making him one of the highest-paid RAs in the program’s short history.

He went back on active duty in 2012. His performance in war and peace put him on track to make lieutenant colonel.

Then CID agents showed up at his headquarters. He said they told his bosses he was guilty of fraud and was about to be arrested. But they left, only to return a year later, in January 2014, to tell his new supervisors the same thing.

The agents handed him a target letter from the Department of Justice.

“The evidence indicates that you defrauded the U.S. Army and its contractor by fraudulently obtaining thousands of dollars in recruiting referral bonuses through on-line recruiting assistant account,” the letter said.

The charge was made not by a local U.S. attorney but by the department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington, the unit that goes after powerful politicians and judges.

CID agents showed up again in December. His bosses subsequently put his promotion on hold. Still, federal authorities have filed no charges.

Julie Hasdorff, a defense lawyer representing the major, said the five-year statute of limitations on fraud expired because his last payment was made in 2010.

“This guy is a boy scout,” Ms. Hasdorff said. “He’s the real deal.”

She said the Justice Department wants her client to talk with prosecutors.

“He’s not going to come in and spill the beans because he has no beans to spill,” she said.

Maj. Suprynowicz said all of his enlistees were people he contacted and referred to recruiters.

“If I had done something, they would have crushed me a long time ago,” he said.

After the most recent CID agents’ visit, his access badge to his building was revoked. He cannot go to the office and instead works from home on post.

“It’s become insurmountable, to be honest with you,” said Maj. Suprynowicz, whose wife is battling cancer.

A CID spokesman referred questions to the Army, which declined to discuss ongoing investigations.

The Guard mobilizes

Among the first to push back against the Army’s prediction of a potential $100 million fraud was the National Guard Association of the United States, the service’s lobbying arm in Washington.

As a rebuttal to the Senate hearing, the association issued a white paper in early 2014.

“After more than six years of criminal investigations, five Army audits and five additional Army investigations, with 200 CID investigative agents assigned, and sensational headlines, approximately $900,000, not even close to $92 million, can be accounted for in terms of GRAP funds connected to criminal convictions of fraud,” the association said.

The $92 million was one of the estimated figures, along with $95 million and close to $100 million.

Ms. McCaskill declared at the 2014 hearing that the Recruiting Assistance Program itself was illegal, violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits agencies from spending money not specifically appropriated by Congress.

The National Guard Association asserted this month that the Army concluded internally that the program was legal.

“There has been a patently unfair rush to judgment on GRAP fueled by officials in Washington,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, the association’s president.

“Certainly, there are some in the Guard who used GRAP to defraud the taxpayers,” he said. “But the vast majority of recruiting assistants contributed lawfully to a program that helped the ArmyNational Guard meet its personnel-strength requirement in a time of war.”

Col. Buccino, the Army spokesman, said the investigation into a suspected Anti-Deficiency Act violation “is in its final stages.”

“Prior to that investigation, there were a number of allegations of fraud, which led to the suspension of the program and the arrest and prosecution of numerous individuals,” he said. “The Army continues to participate in a multiagency task force to investigate and resolve potential fraud.”

The task force, he said, includes local, state and federal agencies.

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