President Obama has ordered the Defense Department to speed up a review of its attempt to recoup enlistment bonuses from National Guard members and to ensure that the Pentagon doesn’t “nickel and dime” them.
Even as a congressional panel Tuesday ordered a separate investigation into the California National Guard’s management of the military pay and bonus system. White House press secretary Josh Earnest refused to say whether Mr. Obama supports a call by some lawmakers to waive repayment of the bonuses.
“I don’t think he’s prepared to go that far at this point,” he told reporters.
Mr. Earnest insisted that Mr. Obama’s first priority “is making sure that our men and women in uniform who signed up to fight for our safety overseas are treated fairly when they come home.”
“When we make a promise to our men and women in the military, we need to keep it,” Mr. Earnest said.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Monday that Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work would spearhead the Pentagon’s inquiry into a department-led effort to recoup re-enlistment bonus money awarded to over 10,000 members of the Army National Guard who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The decision has touched off a firestorm of controversy.
The Defense Department estimates that more than $20 million in bonuses were mistakenly paid to Guard members in California and elsewhere, according to a review of the program by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
Referring to the Defense Department’s efforts to recover the bonuses, Mr. Earnest said the president believes the process “has dragged on for too long.”
“That certainly would raise questions about fairness, but each of these cases is unique,” he said. “We’re not going to nickel and dime them when they get back. We’re not going to hold service members responsible unfairly for unethical conduct or fraud perpetrated by someone else.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced plans Tuesday to launch a congressional investigation into the California National Guard’s management of the military pay and bonus system.
Specifically, Mr. Chaffetz is requesting information on all Pentagon audits of military bonus overpayments to the California National Guard going back to 2002.
The House panel is also demanding all information on department-led efforts to recoup bonuses outside of California, the total amount of bonuses improperly awarded to Guard, Reserve and active-duty service members and details on the appeals process available to service members accused of improperly receiving military bonuses.
The information is due to the committee by November, Mr. Chaffetz wrote in a letter to Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the National Guard bureau chief, and Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, head of the California Army National Guard.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said the Pentagon should suspend its efforts to recover the money. He said the House passed a measure in May that would set a statute of limitations on the military’s ability to recover such overpayments.
“When those Californians answered the call to duty, they earned more from us than bureaucratic bungling and false promises,” Mr. Ryan said.
“The House has already taken steps to fix this kind of injustice in the future. Now, the Pentagon should immediately suspend efforts to recover these overpayments so Congress has time to complete the work we began in May to protect service members from lifelong liability for DOD’s mistakes.”
The main Defense Department authority responsible for vetting cases of fraud and errors in military pay, the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals, has only limited authority to grant waivers to service members unfairly accused of receiving bonuses they did not earn, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
That office can make those rulings only on a case-by-case basis and does not have the authority to grant large-scale waivers to entire Guard, Reserve or active-duty units, he explained.
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.