It hasn't received much attention beyond the Michigan media, but two senior officers in that state's National Guard stand accused of abusing pay rules to maximize their federal pensions, after joining the state payroll.
Major General Thomas Cutler and Brigadier General Richard Elliot are under investigation by the Pentagon, to determine if they accepted state promotions, yet extended their time on the federal payroll, collecting thousands of dollars in additional pay and benefits. Cutler, who serves as commander of the Michigan guard, is accused of taking that route in 2002, and Elliot allegedly used the same approach in 2005, according to a recent investigation by the Detroit Free Press.
Meanwhile, the human resources officer who alerted her superiors to concerns about Elliot's pay arrangements says she was rebuked and stripped of supervisory duties after coming forward. She has asked the Pentagon to investigate why the Michigan National Guard's inspector general closed her complaint instead of forwarding it to the Department of Defense for scrutiny, as part of a whistle-blower complaint.
Cutler, speaking on behalf of himself and Elliott on Monday, said they acted properly at all times and did not retaliate against the employee, Maj. Angela Fink.
"I've worked long and hard to maintain my integrity and honesty," said Cutler, a career officer and pilot who commands Michigan's 12,000 National Guard members.
Cutler said he and Elliott had the right under federal rules to stay on the federal payroll to -- in his case -- collect pay for about two months of unused annual leave accumulated at Selfridge and -- in Elliott's case -- to collect pay for six weeks of unused leave and 20 weeks of compensatory time.
A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., said Guard rules typically require federal employees to leave their posts at a base within 14 days of beginning a state Guard job -- and to take accumulated vacation time and other benefits as a lump sum, not use that time to extend their service.
The spokesman, Rick Breitenfeldt, said published DOD regulations also prohibit Guard employees from being paid for unused compensatory time. The rules prevent the Guard from making big cash payouts for accumulated compensatory time.
Breitenfeldt said the Michigan Guard is citing an exemption to the rules -- and the Defense Department's office of inspector general is now sorting out whether Cutler and Elliott acted appropriately.
As leaders of the Michigan National Guard, Culter and Elliot are state employees, and fall under a chain of command which begins with Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. A spokesman for Granholm told the Free Press that the governor is "pleased" that the Defense Department is looking into the pay scandal.
A better might question might be what did the Granholm know, and when did she know it? Culter was hand-picked by the governor to run the state guard in 2003. He also serves as Director of the state's Department of Military and Veteran's Affairs, an agency with over 3,000 employees and a $400-million annual budget. Culter is also the same officer who brought Elliot to serve at the state headquarters in Lansing two years ago, following a path similar to his own.
Describing Cutler and Elliot as controversial choices might be an understatement. Not long before Granholm named the new guard commander in 2003, Cutler (who then served as commander of the Selfridge Air National Guard Base) and Elliot, one of his top assistants, were accused of discrimination by a black female employee at the post. The case wound up in federal court, and two months ago, a judge sided with the plaintiff, granting her the job she sought, $25,000 in damages and back pay.
Now, in light of the pay controversy, Cutler and Elliot may face similar complaints.
Elliott's pay arrangement led another top officer in the Michigan National Guard to ask payroll officials last fall for "the same deal Gen. Elliott has," according to whistle-blower complaint records filed with the Department of Defense.
The comment brought Elliott's payroll status to the attention of Maj. Angela Fink, a human resources officer for the state's National Guard. She went to Cutler.
Cutler, she said, told her, "Well, it's OK. I did it, too."
He also told her, she said, that before she accused a senior officer of an impropriety, "You better have done your research."
In November, she also alerted the Michigan Guard's inspector general, Army Col. Mark Van Drie. He later closed the case without forwarding it to the Pentagon for review. Cutler said she had asked whether regulations prohibited the arrangement, and when Van Drie checked and determined it wasn't an issue, the matter was dropped.
Fink said her immediate supervisor subsequently scolded her and stripped her of her duties as the deputy director for the human resources office.
The next day, Fink said she approached Cutler, who two years earlier had assigned her to the deputy position. She said he told her she needed to do some "soul searching" and "take some long walks in the evenings."
Cutler didn't dispute what Fink said in an interview Monday.
Having dealt with the guard (at various levels) during my military career, the Michigan pay scandal is disturbing, but hardly surprising. The rules are different in the guard; politics trumps everything else, and those with connections can rise far and fast. But, by openly flaunting the pay rules so openly--and possibly, punishing someone who blew the whistle--Major General Cutler and Brigadier General Elliot may pay their own price, and see their military careers come to an end.
And rightfully so. The rules on transferring from "federal" to "state" guard status are fairly clear, designed to prevent senior officers from "cashing in" on unused compensatory time when they make the transition. It's doubtful that the Defense Department Inspector General will support Michigan's claim of an "exemption," leaving Cutler and Elliot in violation of the rules.
The whole episode stinks to high heaven, and if Governor Granholm believes she can escape the stench, guess again. Two of Granholm's highest-ranking guard officers are accused of serious financial misconduct, and both have apparent problems with discrimination as well. Moreover, the "double-dipping" by Cutler and Elliot was so widely-known that other guard members demanded it as well, suggesting that the two generals created a "culture of corruption" within the Lansing headquarters, then (essentially) dared a whistle-blower to challenge them.
Perhaps the Free-Press should ask Governor Granholm if she "stands behind" her guard commander, and the man Culter picked to run the Michigan ANG. They might also ask is this is another example of the cronyism that Ms. Granhold has tolerated--and even defended--in the past.