- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Army has finished scrutinizing thousands of soldiers in its yearslong investigation of fraud in the National Guard’s wartime recruiting bonus program.

“As of July 2017, all investigations have been completed into National Guard soldiers,” the Army said in a letter to Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel.

The notification means the Army is closing out an investigation into what it had billed as massive fraud, but critics say it has hung soldiers out to dry — without trial or conviction — over five-plus years.

The Washington Times spoke Wednesday with a Tennessee National Guard soldier who was accused of wrongdoing by the ArmyCriminal Investigation Command in 2012. Five years later, Sgt. Kristin Steakley lives in limbo with no final word from CID.

In its letter, the Army told Mr. Coffman that 37 soldiers remain “flagged” for possible punishment in the now-defunct $400 million Guard Recruiting Assistance Program. Mr. Coffman appears to be one of the few members of Congress who have pressed the Army to explain its investigation’s length and reach.

The Army’s letter does not provide the total number of soldiers implicated by CID. In February 2016, the Army told The Times that 492 soldiers out of 100,000 participants — the vast majority of them National Guard members — were guilty or suspected of fraud.

Since then, the Army has refused to provide The Times with final numbers or a total fraud amount, which critics say is well below a ballyhooed estimate of $100 million. The Army told The Times last year that the fraud estimate was $6 million.

Typical offenses involved payment for recruits whom soldiers did not refer, kickbacks, or sharing personal identification information.

The Army’s July letter said it “cannot confirm an exact time line for when all cases will be closed.”

Therein lies the problem, say soldier advocates, as careers like that of Sgt. Steakley’s stagnate.

“This is precisely the Catch-22 of the CID’s G-RAP investigation,” said Jeffrey Addicott, whose Center for Terrorism Law in San Antonio has represented pro bono a number of those accused. “The general pattern has been to subject the soldier to years of investigation, and then when the command or the local federal prosecutor determines that the case is a house of cards, the soldier is still listed as ‘titled’ for the offense, even though no action is taken and no due process given.”

“Titled” is a CID term meaning it has concluded that a soldier broke the law. This conclusion can find its way into federal criminal histories — which happened to Sgt. Steakley — even though there is no conviction, thus scuttling a job application for certain government and civilian employment.

Guilty until proved innocent

In 2014, CID told the Senate that it was estimating as much as $100 million in fraudulent payments to National Guard recruiting assistants. (The Guard had launched G-RAP in 2005 to shore up a soldier shortage during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) The recruiting assistants received $2,000 for each candidate who ended up joining.

Texas defense lawyer Doug O’Connell said the letter to Mr. Coffman greatly understates how many soldiers have been targeted, sometimes unfairly, and how many careers are left hanging today.

“The number is widely off the mark,” said Mr. O’Connell, a retired colonel in the Texas National Guard who has represented scores of G-RAP soldiers. “It is overly lawyered.”

In an Aug. 25 follow-up letter to the Army, Mr. Coffman asked for more details about the 37 remaining cases, of which 19 were rejected for prosecution by the Justice Department or state prosecutors.

“My question to you is this,” Mr. Coffman wrote to Army Undersecretary Ryan D. McCarthy, who now serves as acting secretary. “If you have referred these cases to a civilian prosecutor who has decided that there is insufficient evidence to indict the Guardsman, then what is the appropriate action other than to remove the ‘flag’ from that individual’s record? It is my understanding that, absent a trial and verdict, an individual is not guilty and that the individual should not be subject to any adverse action.”

Civilian prosecutors have declined a number of CID cases beyond the 19 cited in the Army letter. In those cases, some soldiers faced administrative punishment.

The Army did not provide Mr. Coffman with a full accounting of all of the soldiers targeted and how the cases were handled.

‘A state of limbo’

How G-RAP’s wide net can ruin the careers of soldiers not officially convicted can be seen in the case of Sgt. Steakley. She received payments as a recruiting assistant before deploying two times to Afghanistan. CID said she committed fraud. She denies wrongdoing.

A military police officer in the Tennessee National Guard, Sgt. Steakley has been under investigation for five years. Her personnel record at first was “flagged,” freezing her career. CID also “titled” her, and the FBI created a file. Thus, she cannot pursue a civilian law enforcement career.

“This is an insane roller coaster of legal red tape that has caused this to last way too long,” Sgt. Steakley told The Times.

The nine-year National Guard member provided a seven-page timeline that begins with, “Throughout various ways this has destroyed, in every aspect, my civilian and military career. This case has single-handedly hindered my civilian life, career, well-being, mental health, friendships, relationships and family.”

A CID agent interviewed her in 2012 after her return from the war. She was photographed and fingerprinted.

As her case lingered, year after year, with no end in sight, she filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI. The FBI responded by saying it possessed a file on her based on the CID’s charges of larceny and making false statements.

Mr. Addicott, who has represented Sgt. Steakley pro-bono, told The Times that her command eventually lifted the flag in January 2016.

Mr. Addicott said the command grew tired of waiting for CID to provide the official report of investigation on which to take action.

“The incompetence of the CID to not forward a report means it is taking years and years and these people are sitting in a state of limbo,” Mr. Addicott said. “They can’t get promoted. They are standing still in time for years. That’s the unconscionable part.”

Earlier this year, the 40,000-member Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States published an open letter to the Army asking it to end its G-RAP investigation.

“We believe those still being investigated are unfairly being targeted and that the result of the investigation has ruined lives, careers, marriages, and credit; indeed, some have opted for suicide to end the relentless harassment,” the association’s letter said.

“This harassment must stop now and complete restitution to those innocent Guard members must be made,” said the letter, signed by the group’s 25 officers.

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