WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday called for the Pentagon to immediately suspend efforts to recover enlistment bonuses paid to thousands of soldiers in California, even as the Pentagon said late Tuesday the number of soldiers affected was smaller than first believed.
"When those Californians answered the call to duty" to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, "they earned more from us than bureaucratic bungling and false promises," said Speaker Ryan. He urged the Pentagon to suspend collection efforts until "Congress has time ... to protect service members from lifelong liability for DOD's mistakes."
Ryan's comments came as the White House said President Barack Obama has warned the Defense Department not to "nickel and dime" service members who were victims of fraud by overzealous recruiters.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday he did not believe Obama would support a blanket waiver of repayments, but said California National Guard members should not be held responsible for "unethical conduct or fraud perpetrated by someone else."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, meanwhile, promised to resolve a festering conflict that has lingered for a decade.
The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that the Pentagon has demanded that some soldiers repay their enlistment bonuses after audits revealed overpayments by the California National Guard. Recruiters under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals at the height of the two wars improperly offered bonuses of $15,000 or more to soldiers who re-enlisted, the newspaper reported.
If soldiers refuse to pay the bonus back, they could face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens.
The Pentagon said late Tuesday that it instructed at most 6,500 California Guard soldiers to repay the enlistment bonuses. That number is lower than a widely reported figure that nearly 10,000 soldiers have been told to repay part or all of their bonuses.
Defense Department spokesman Maj. Jamie Davis said an audit more than five years in the making concluded last month that 1,100 soldiers improperly received bonuses for which they were ineligible. Another 5,400 soldiers had erroneous paperwork that could have made them ineligible.
The California Guard said Tuesday it has collected about $22 million from fewer than 2,000 soldiers who improperly received bonuses and student loan aid.
Asked about the matter at a news conference Tuesday in Paris, Secretary Carter said the issue is complex and is being handled by the deputy secretary of defense, Robert Work.
"The first thing I want to say is that anybody who volunteers to serve in the armed forces of the United States deserves our gratitude and respect — period," Carter said. Officials are going to look into the repayment problem "and resolve it," Carter added, but offered no details.
A defense authorization bill passed by the House would establish a statute of limitations on the military's ability to recover future overpayments and scrutinize existing cases of service member debt. House and Senate negotiators are trying to finalize the defense bill and pass it during the post-election, lame-duck session.
Ryan, R-Wis., called the bill an important step to establish a common standard for correcting accounting errors in the military.
Meanwhile, House and Senate oversight committees said they investigating the California Guard's attempt to reclaim the re-enlistment bonuses.
The House Oversight Committee and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs asked the Guard to turn over documents and audits related to the decade-old payments.
The National Guard has said the bonuses were wrongly paid but its effort to reclaim them from thousands of soldiers and veterans in California and across the country has caused public outcry, including widespread criticism from members of Congress.
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah and three other Republicans said in a letter that officials who mismanaged the bonus programs must be "held accountable." The lawmakers said Guard officials must turn over relevant documents by Nov. 7.
Senate Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said it was "simply unacceptable that the finest among us should be forced to pay — literally — for the mismanagement and errors perpetrated by the National Guard leadership."
"Our soldiers deserve better and it's up to the Department of Defense and Congress to fix this," said Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Other states may have been affected, but "California is where the majority of this occurred," said National Guard Bureau spokeswoman Laura Ochoa.