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Call Kurtis: Thousands of Soldiers Told They May Have To Pay Bonus Money Back

Thousands of California soldiers are being audited and told they may have to pay back their bonus enlistment money.  A Sacramento soldier called Kurtis Ming after he was told he should have never been given his $20,000 bonus.

Every California Army National Guard soldier who got a bonus or student loan repayment between 2004 and 2010 is being asked to prove they deserved that money or they may have to pay it back.

"I wore this patch outside the wire like every day and I came home.  I figure it's a good luck charm," said Reservist, Todd Percival, looking at his National Guard memorabilia.

Friends and family told him not to do it, but Percival felt compelled to sign up for the California Army National Guard during the height of the war, in 2006.

"I was a single guy, no family, no ties other than my immediate family. So if I could take the position of a family guy, then that was the war time reason for joining," said Percival.

He signed a six-year active duty contract to get a $20,000 bonus.

"So I'm getting to shoot big guns, I get paid more, like it was all falling into place. Sounds great," recalls Percival.

He volunteered for his two tours of duty; a year in Iraq, and another in Afghanistan.

"Our longest firefight was 3.5 hours. We had helicopters running us in resupplies of ammo and water," said Percival.

Now, a year after being discharged from active duty, he gets the shock of his military career.

"They're telling me they're going to take the money back unless I can defend my side of the case," said Percival.

He's been told his bonus contract had an error in it and now the government may want its $20,000 back.

"I felt it was a personal attack on my integrity," said Percival.

CBS13 has learned every California Army National Guard soldier who got a bonus or student loan repayment between 2004 and 2010 is getting audited and can expect a letter.  We're talking about 17,000 soldiers given 25,000 bonuses worth $100 million dollars.

"I don't really think anyone who calls my office is in a good mood when the get a letter from me," said Col. Mike Piazzoni.

Col. Piazzoni is the commander of the Incentives Task Force.   A group now dedicated to digging into every bonus over a six-year period after state and federal auditors went through a sample and found many were given to ineligible soldiers.

"What we found was payments were being made and the checks weren't being done," said Col. Piazzoni.

Some soldiers were overpaid, others, like Percival had errors in their contracts,  and some have no contract on file with the military at all.  But they still got paid.

"That's not how it works in the world. Right? You have to have a contract before you can get paid," said Col. Piazzoni.

Federal investigators say it all traces back to the former bonus and incentive manager, retired Master Sergeant Toni Jaffi of Citrus Heights.

In her guilty plea to criminal charges the Department of Justice said, "Jaffe admitted that she submitted claims to pay bonuses to members of the California national guard whom she knew were not eligible to receive the bonuses."

"She could have said 'no.' She could have said, 'You're not authorized' or, 'You know what? I'll just pay them,'" Said Col. Piazzoni.

No one knows why she did what she did.  Jaffe is now serving a 30-month prison sentence.  But how could it go on for so long?

"I think that was the biggest problem was there was no oversight occurring.  There was no one going, 'Well let's randomly take a look at the bonuses you paid out and see if they're accurate,'" said Col. Piazzoni.

So why now should soldiers like Percival get dragged into the mix?

"You guys should have fixed this without ever involving me whatsoever. Your error on your contract, why involve me?" asks Percival.

Col. Piazzoni says they need to hear each soldier's side of the story, because those details that aren't in the records can help them keep the money.  Soldiers can file an "exception to policy," which in Percival's case amounted to emailing and calling Col. Piazzoni's office.

"Because there are no simple 'Oh, it's one of those, he did this violation, so we can fix it.'  Every soldier has a different case," said Col. Piazzoni.

But the reality is some soldiers who were overpaid or shouldn't have had money coming their way will have to pay it back.  Percival now waits to hear whether he gets to keep his bonus.  Even if everything works out, the experience has left him shaken.

"They violated my trust in them," said Percival.

Col. Piazzoni's team has made it through 8,000 of the 25,000 audits that need to be done.  He says so far 40% of the soldiers are found to be fully eligible for their bonuses.  Ten percent are found to have been overpaid.  The other 50% are like Percival, with contract issues.

We couldn't get exact numbers on how many have had to pay the government back because the task force is off duty because of the government shut down.

Col. Piazzoni says if you get a letter the worst thing you can do is ignore it.  If you do that, you risk the government just collecting on your money.

So, what's to keep this from happening again?  Col. Piazzoni tells us they have a new system that does the checks that should have been going on to make sure the soldiers are eligible and remain eligible for the bonuses they're given.  That system has been in place since June of 2012.

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