Monday, December 18, 2006

Getting Rid of Bad Apple Pickers

We've often stated that the military must make its first quality cuts "up front"--at the recruiting office. Better screening and selection of future military personnel can save problems and embarassment down the road, as evidenced by the Air Force's newest JAG scandal (the service commissioned--and routinely promoted--a lawyer who was disbarred by two states more than 20 years ago). And, not long after that scandal broke, the Air Force suspended a Catholic chaplain at Barksdale AFB, LA, amid charges that he had molested altar boys as a civilian priest in Arizona, before joining the service.

The fact that both men were allowed to enter the service is a black mark against the military recruiting process. For almost everyone entering the military--officer or enlisted--the first stop is a recruiting office, where the uniformed representative explains opportunities and benefits in the armed services, while initiating the process of gathering background information on the potential recruit. While the JAG and chaplain cases have not been adjudicated, we can only wonder how much time--and embarassment--might have been saved with a few inquiries by the recruiter. Afterall, the military does consider past conduct in selecting future soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and the recruiter is the first step in that filtering process.

Of course, it's much tougher to weed out potential bad apples, if your "apple pickers" (in this case, the recruiters) are corrupt. That was apparently the case in Tucson, Arizona, where local Army and Marine Corps recruiters ran a cocaine distribution ring out of their office complex. At least seven active-duty military recruiters were involved in the drug gang, along with five recruiters from the Arizona Army National Guard. The recruiters are at the heart of an FBI operation called Lively Green, one of the largest public corruption scandals in Arizona history.

The Arizona Daily Star has been looking into the scandal, and they uncovered even more disturbing facts. Many of the recruiters remained on the job after FBI surveillance cameras caught them counting bribe money next to stacks of cocaine bricks. In some cases, the recruiters were still visiting local high schools three years after they were identified in the Lively Green investigation, which unfolded between 2002 and 2004. Some of the recruiters retired honorably from the military during that period. Most of those accused in the scandal have pleaded guilty to federal charges, and will be sentenced in federal court in March 2007.

According to the Daily Star, the military was at something of a disadvantage in dealing with the corrupt recruiters. Military officials either didn't know the recruiters were involved in drug dealing, or they were told by the FBI to leave them alone, to avoid compromising the investigation. That allowed the recruiters to keep making the rounds at Tucson-area high schools. While there is no evidence that the recruiters offered or sold drugs to students, parents are understandably upset over the presence of those recruiters at local schools.

While I can understand the FBI's desire to see the investigation through, allowing the corrupt recruiters to remain on the job raises clear ethical and legal issues. The bureau admits that the recruiters were not under continuous surveillance, so we may not be aware of the full scope of their illegal activities. Given their frequent contact with young people, it would seem that tighter surveillance should be mandatory in this type of case.

On the military side, we wonder why commanders who were aware of the investigation didn't implement available tools for restricting (or even eliminating) contact between the corrupt recruiters and young people. Recruiters under suspicion could have been moved to the local recruiting squadron or battalion headquarters, placed in charge of recruiting-related programs that didn't require meetings with young people, or simply reassigned to their "old" MOS and returned them to the "real" Army or Marine Corps. The on-going War on Terror and combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could have easily explained the curtailment of a recruiting tour, particularly if the solider or Marine came from a "high demand" career field.

Having worked as a recruiter during my ROTC days, I can assure you that there is no more demanding--or rewarding--duty in the U.S. military. But recruiting also requires tremendous ethics and integrity, qualities that extend well beyond the "white lies" about jobs and opportunities that recruiters are accused of telling. For a young officer or NCO, serving as a recruiter often means working by yourself, hundreds of miles from your supervisor, or the nearest military installation. Suddenly, you're in charge of thousands of dollars in government resources, you're the "local face" of your service, and you're basically on your own.

Thankfully, 99.5% of of military recruiters meet these challenges, and perform their jobs admirably. The remaining fraction succumb to temptations, and cross over the ethical and/ or legal line, engaging in behavior that brings shame and dishonor upon the uniform.

The "dirty dozen" in Arizona deserve the maximum punishment when their sentences are handed out next spring. But the federal judge in this case ought to raise an an obvious concern with both the FBI and federal prosecutors: why was it necessary to keep those recruiters on the job--without full-time surveillance--allowing them to continue their school visits and other contacts with young people? Sure, the final sweep netted at least 80 suspects in the case, but the feds took an awful chance in letting the military crooks run free for so long.


It will be interesting to see what punishment the military hands out to the "retired" recruiters implicated in the Lively Green investigation. Normally, conviction on federal felony charges is grounds for termination of a military pension, though such determinations are made on a case-by-case basis. For example, the family of convicted Air Force spy Brian Reagan still receives his military pension (he retired as a Master Sergeant), though he will spend the rest of his life in prison. Continuation of Reagan's pension was part of a plea deal he cut with federal prosectuors, on charges of attempting to pass spy satellite data to various foreign countries. Reagan's espionage efforts occurred after his retirement from active duty, apparently providing grounds for continued payment of the pension to his family.

Similar justification could also be used for continuation of Duke Cunningham's Navy pension. The disgraced former California Congressman--now serving an eight-year sentence on corruption charges--is also a retired Navy Commander, drawing an annual pension in excess of $30,000 a year. Since Cunningham's criminal activity occurred long after retirement (he left active duty in 1988), the Navy has grounds for continuing his pension, which would probably be paid to the Congressman's ex-wife. Cunningham is also entitled to his Congressional pension; there is no record of Congress denying its generous pension benefits to anyone, regardless of their transgressions. No wonder Twain referred to them as "America's native criminal class."

We've long maintained that stripping high-ranking criminals of their rank and pensions would send a powerful message to everyone who wears the uniforms, including those in charge of recruiting new members of the armed forces.


Mike H. said...

"We've long maintained that stripping high-ranking criminals of their rank and pensions would send a powerful message to everyone who wears the uniforms, including those in charge of recruiting new members of the armed forces."

An excellent point, but who makes the laws? The members of that group.

emdfl said...

Just an aside, but I believe I read that 12 out of about 70 people involved with the drug scandle wer members of the military. The rest were members of various law enforcement agencies. Funny how the story seems to be all about the military, or not.