The Maryland National Guard's top general has stripped his senior Army recruiter of his command and disciplined 13 additional soldiers after an internal investigation found members of the recruiting battalion misappropriated $40,000 in training funds and, in at least two cases, signed up soldiers who were ineligible to serve.
Officials said yesterday that the accusations of impropriety in recruiting efforts were first raised in December. The Guard launched an internal investigation immediately but found little to substantiate the initial allegations involving the mistreatment of new recruits, according to Guard spokesman 1st Lt. Wayde Minami.
But as more accusations poured in, including fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel, the Guard quickly launched a second investigation. The lieutenant colonel in charge of that probe found merit in some of those claims and discovered additional wrongdoing independently.
"It saddens and disappoints me to report that while many of the allegations were unsubstantiated, a number of improprieties were uncovered," Major General Bruce F. Tuxill, the head of the Maryland National Guard, wrote in an e-mail yesterday to the roughly 7,000 members.
The violations included soldiers who were supposed to take leave to attend training but instead spent at least part of the time doing something else, Minami said. The spokesman would not describe in detail what other activities the soldiers did but said that they would be responsible for reimbursing the guard $40,000 for improperly filed travel expenses.
The investigative report, which has not been publicly released, made recommendations that included the option of lodging criminal charges against soldiers, Minami said. Tuxill, the state's adjutant general, instead chose to mete out administrative punishments.
In addition to removing Maj. Travis Rambert from his post overseeing the 100-member recruiting operation, Tuxill ordered letters of reprimand for seven others and moved 10 of the 13 soldiers out of the recruiting battalion altogether. One noncommissioned officer was demoted and discharged from the Guard.
Most of the punished guardsmen worked at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore and the armory in Ellicott City. Rambert took over the battalion in October.
When asked why more guardsmen weren't fired or anyone charged criminally, Tuxill said in an interview yesterday that he believed the accused soldiers would be able to beat any charges lodged against them.
"We feel very strongly that administratively, I can do more than getting in a fistfight. Administrative remedies are much more effective," the general said.
His spokesman said in a separate interview that "when you kick them out, that's a whole order of magnitude different from being fired from a civilian job." Minami added that the loss of command and reprimand letters are sufficient and "will have a negative effect on their careers."
The Guard defended its overall recruiting operation, saying that its goals have been met and even exceeded in some cases. Corruption among recruiters, Tuxill said, was not systemic.
"The scope here is less than 10 percent of our total recruiting force," the general said.
But Minami also said the Guard's ability to attract new soldiers and retain the ones it has could be affected.
"It may have a short-term impact as the organization is going through a very traumatic experience," he said. "In the long term, it's only going help to recruit and retain people. It shows that we had these problems and we've taken care of it. It shows that we have integrity, that we're going to do the right thing.
"We don't cover things up in the Maryland National Guard. We take care of it."
Top officials blamed the problems in large part on the ability of soldiers to stay within the recruiting division for almost their entire careers. That practice will now end.
"There was a culture that had grown up that allowed these types of problems to happen." Minami said. "By having a constant flow of fresh blood in the recruiting battalion in the future, that won't happen again."
Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said the governor and his senior staff were briefed two days ago about the investigation.
"The governor is confident that the National Guard is taking all of the corrective action necessary," Abbruzzese said.
He declined to comment on whether the investigation would imperil the future of Tuxill, whose post is a gubernatorial appointment. Only a fraction - 4 percent in 2006 - of the $300 million budget for the Maryland Military Department, which includes the Guard, comes from state coffers; the rest is funded by the federal government.
The pressure to sign up new troops and keep them in uniform in the midst of two wars has been constant for the military since Sept. 11, 2001.
An August report from the Government Accounting Office found that from 2004 to 2005, allegations of "recruiter wrongdoing" increased nationwide from 4,400 cases to 6,600 cases. The number of substantiated cases also rose from just over 400 to almost 630 cases. And the number of criminal violations related to military recruiting more than doubled from just over 30 to almost 70 cases.
"The department, however, is not in a sound position to assure Congress and the general public that it knows the full extent to which recruiter irregularities are occurring," the GAO concluded in its report.
A number of factors within the recruiting environment may contribute to irregularities, according to the GAO. Investigators said recruiters mentioned the strength of the economy and hostilities in Iraq as factors that made it more difficult for them to achieve their goals using lawful means.
Largely absent from the watchdog report was mention of the National Guard's part-time soldiers, many of whom have been called up for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a footnote in the report, the GAO found that "the National Guard Bureau does not maintain data on allegations and service-identified incidents of recruiter irregularities."
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he was pleased by the release of the investigation but disappointed by the guard's leadership over recruiting.
"I am deeply troubled that the National Guard does not appear to have been aware of the extent of unprofessional behavior and the failures of leadership - even apparently by a recruiter named as 'Recruiter of the Year' - within its recruiting operations until allegations were reported in local media," Cummings said in a statement.
The guard's leadership promoted the release of the investigation's findings yesterday as evidence of how serious they are about misconduct within their ranks. But the Baltimore City Paper first reported problems with the guard's recruiting operation in December. Readers soon flooded the paper's Web site with additional allegations.
The initial article focused on the Guard's recruiter of the year, Sgt. 1st Class Richard F. Thomas, and allegations of sexual impropriety and of an altercation with a co-worker. Because guard officials declined to release the names of those investigated, it was unclear yesterday whether Thomas was among those disciplined.
According to Cummings, the scandal signaled more serious problems inside the Maryland National Guard.
"While the commander of recruiting operations has now been relieved of his duties, I believe that the senior leadership of the Maryland Army National Guard should have acted to intervene in these matters, particularly as they appear to involve a large number of recruiting personnel, before they became the subject of newspaper reports," the congressman said.