- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2017

Part 1 of 2

Sgt. 1st Class Trevor Antoine is living amid trouble in paradise.

The Army Criminal Investigation Command’s nationwide probe into fake recruiting bonuses stretched into the touristy Caribbean in 2014 and reached a small National Guard unit on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas. In an armory there, Sgt. Antoine mastered the art of signing up National Guardsmen, sometimes more than a dozen a year.

“I was the top recruiter last year,” he said.

His pleasant island existence was rocked when two CID agent got him into a room without an attorney and accused him of stealing government money and committing aggravated identity theft via the now-defunct National Guard Recruiting Assistance Program. The 18-year soldier left the interrogation dazed.

“In my mind, I had not done anything, so I just went and talked to them freely,” Sgt. Antoine told The Washington Times. “I’m very disappointed. If I knew it would lead to this, I would not have taken part.”

In November, CID filed a damning investigative report. Sgt. Antoine’s commanding officer suspended him from recruiting duties, with a notification that he would be kicked off full-time Guard status and relegated to the title of weekend warrior.

Sgt. Antoine reached out to the Center for Terrorism Law, run by former Army Judge Advocate Jeffrey Addicott, a professor at St. Mary’s University Law School in San Antonio. Mr. Addicott specializes in pro bono representation of service members he believes are unfairly accused.

Mr. Addicott has defended several G-RAP targets and has come to believe that CID agents are overzealously investigating National Guard members to ramp up prosecution numbers. The Army told Congress in 2014 that the bonus program was the military procurement scandal of the century.

“Instead of protecting the interests of justice, CID agents have destroyed it by passing to various commands false investigative reports, as in the case of Sgt. Antoine, assuming that the various commands would simply accept their reports at face value and then destroy the military member either by administrative means or judicial punishment,” Mr. Addicott told The Times.

Sgt. Antoine is one of hundreds of National Guard members accused of G-RAP wrongdoing.

Launched in 2005, G-RAP created a cadre of “recruiting assistants” who would work as private contractors and receive $2,000 for each confirmed recruit they referred to full-time recruiters such as Sgt. Antoine. The easy flow of cash, susceptibility to fraud and constantly changing rules sank the program in 2012. (Part 2 of this story examines those rules.)

Sgt. Antoine began to work in 2007 with retired Sgt. 1st Class Milton Turnbull, who had trained Sgt. Antoine as a recruiter and in retirement became a registered recruiting assistant.

The CID said Mr. Turnbull referred 13 potential guard members to recruiters and received $29,000, a flashing red light to investigators. Their report said Mr. Turnbull never fully assisted the recruiters and therefore committed fraud.

Mr. Turnbull vehemently denied the charge and said no one contacted him since the CID interviewed him three years ago.

“Somebody is trying railroad us,” he told The Times.

The Justice Department declined to prosecute either man but did find “probable cause,” a relatively low evidentiary standard, that they had committed offenses.

Army investigators have cracked several recruiting assistant conspiracies in other Guard units. The crime worked like this:

Full-time recruiters would give recruiting assistants personal data on recruits whom the assistants never helped.

The recruiting assistants would enter the data — personally identifiable information — run by the contractor Document and Packaging Brokers Inc., also known as Docupak, of Birmingham, Alabama.

Docupak, which received a $350-per-recruit commission amid a nearly $400 million contract, would make direct deposits to the recruiting assistants — $1,000 for each enrollment and $1,000 for each recruit arriving at boot camp.

The assistants then would kick back some of their commissions to the recruiters.

There is a big difference in the Antoine-Turnbull case. Their working relationship lacks any evidence of kickbacks. Both men turned over their bank account information to CID, which made no mention of any financial quid pro quo in its report.

“I personally got none of this money, and I’ve been explaining that to them since Day One,” Sgt. Antoine said.

The central charge against him is that he illegally shared potential recruits’ personally identifiable information with Mr. Turnbull. CID says the sharing amounts to ID theft, punishable by two years in prison.

Sgt. Antoine said rules created by Docupak were confusing. At first, they allowed sharing.

“They never trained us on the program,” he recalled. “All they did was just send us some brochures and PowerPoint presentations.”

The Times asked CID chief spokesman Christopher Grey why Sgt. Antoine was accused of wrongdoing when program rules said at one point that he could share personal ID.

CID is responsible for fully investigating allegations where credible evidence exists that a crime may have occurred,” Mr. Grey said in an email. “Once the case is complete, an attorney conducts a probable cause review to determine the offenses believe to have been committed. In this case, an assistant U.S. attorney opined probable cause existed to believe the two soldiers committed the offenses of theft of government funds, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and conspiracy.”

G-RAP hits the islands

By 2007, the bonus program had arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Generals in the Guard Bureau had faced a critical shortage of 20,000 troops. The demands of deploying away from home to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan scared off the typical weekend-only citizen-soldier.

The generals threw cash at the problem and in no time had an army of nearly 100,000 recruiting assistant volunteers. Within a few short years, the Guard had mended the manpower gap.

G-RAP became history in 2012 after Army audits picked up evidence of major fraud. By 2014, scores of CID agents in Task Force Raptor fanned out to find the crooks, including in New York, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Army witnesses at a much-watched Senate hearing said the theft of taxpayer money could reach $100 million.

But two years later, The Washington Times found that the level of fraud was $6 million, a significant loss but considerably short of the ballyhooed mark. Of nearly 100,000 recruiting assistants, 492 had been found guilty of or were suspected of wrongdoing. The vast majority, 305, received less than $15,000 in commissions.

All the while, Sgt. Antoine plied his trade on St. Thomas, visiting schools and churches to persuade young people to join. The U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard stands at about 730 soldiers who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as police officers, water suppliers and medical staff.

Sgt. Antoine said Mr. Turnbull, his former mentor, would refer a recruit to him. He would acquire the recruit’s information such as Social Security number and date of birth. He would convey the info to the recruiting assistant, who then would submit the profile to Docupak for payment.

The arrangement seemed to work: Mr. Turnbull collected $29,000, and Sgt. Antoine met recruiting goals.

But one day in January 2014, Sgt. Antoine and Mr. Turnbull found themselves sitting down with CID agents — voluntarily, no attorneys present — in separate rooms at the armory.

According to the CID report, Mr. Turnbull said he did not assist all the people for whom he had submitted data to Docupak.

Mr. Turnbull told The Times a different story, though he had signed his CID statement.

“I never admitted to committing any fraud,” Mr. Turnbull said. “I never admitted to anything. I didn’t do what they said I did.”

Sgt. Antoine told the CID that on occasion Mr. Turnbull would call his office and ask for the names of people who had signed up. Sgt. Antoine said sometimes, when Mr. Turnbull heard a name, he would say that he assisted that person but had forgotten the name.

The Times asked Sgt. Antoine if his former mentor took advantage of him to collect commissions.

“No, I do not think so,” he said. “He was a former recruiter, and he knows it’s very challenging to be a recruiter on the islands, and because of his love for the Guard, he decided to help us out. I believe that his actions was more out of confusion with the program rather than an opportunity to take advantage of.”

Mr. Addicott, the defense attorney, said that if Mr. Turnbull committed wrongdoing, there is no evidence in the CID report that Sgt. Antoine was aware of it.

Rebuttal

When the former JAG officer read Sgt. Antoine’s email asking for help, the recruiter’s words reminded him of other soldiers caught up in CID’s wide net. Mr. Addicott is defending one soldier who has been under investigation for more than five years, with no conclusion. In another case, he exonerated an Iraq War Army officer in Texas whom the CID targeted for years and pushed his career off the rails.

“There is great festering rot in the CID command when it comes to G-RAP cases,” Mr. Addicott told The Times. “It smells to high heavens.”

In March, he prepared Sgt. Antoine’s written defense, with exhibits for submission to Maj. Nina A. Clarke Brewley, commander of Joint Forces Headquarters Virgin Islands.

Without an official session to hear Sgt. Antoine’s side, Maj. Brewley in January had issued a sharply worded memo that basically convicted him.

“Your position as a senior recruiter is a position of significant trust and you have clearly violated that trust,” Maj. Brewley wrote. “This type of behavior is unbecoming of a non-commissioned officer and brings shame to the recruiting and retention battalion. Your dishonesty warrants disciplinary action.”

Sgt. Antoine told The Times: “I spoke to the commander, but she would not listen. She kept saying that the CID is a federal organization and that they have a lot of evidence on me. In other words, she said she had to go with what the CID presented.”

“The subject CID report pertaining to Sgt. Antoine is one of the absolute worst I have ever seen in my 20 years as a JAG officer,” Mr. Addicott said. “Incredibly, given the gravity of the alleged offenses, there is zero documentary or sworn statements under oath from any witnesses that implicate Sgt. Antoine in any criminal wrongdoing whatsoever.”

Master Sgt. Karen D. Williams, the Virgin Islands Guard spokeswoman, said “the G-RAP matter is still an open matter.”

“Overall, the military takes all alleged acts of impropriety seriously and will investigate them fully,” Sgt. Williams told The Times. “Every member of the National Guard must adhere to the ethical standards in our core values. The [Guard] has no tolerance for inappropriate activity. Those who are found guilty of committing offenses will be handled appropriately.”

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