SALT LAKE CITY — At least four former Utah National Guard members face federal charges for allegedly getting thousands of dollars in recruiting bonuses for new soldiers they didn't recruit.
The guardsmen allegedly took advantage of an incentive program that has turned into one of the Army's largest financial scandals and is the subject of a congressional investigation. The Army launched the Guard Recruiter Assistance Program, or G-RAP, in 2005 when it was 20,000 soldiers short and strapped by war operations overseas and natural disasters such Hurricane Katrina.
Through its Criminal Investigation Service, the Army opened nearly 600 investigations into more than 1,200 people who allegedly defrauded the program of at least $29 million. It dropped the initiative in 2012.
John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, said the innovative recruiting effort encouraged soldiers to bring in their friends and relatives, creating high-quality, cohesive units.
"It was a program that had obvious benefits. There's a few people who ruined it for everybody else," he said.
The four Utah men, two of whom worked in the guard's recruiting office in Riverdale, falsely claimed they knew and helped recruit at least 26 soldiers from 2006 to 2009, according to indictments filed Wednesday and last month in U.S. District Court. Some of the recruits told investigators they didn't know the men, while others said they had already decided to enlist when they met them.
Jesse Lee Howell, who was an active duty soldier assigned to a recruiting and retention battalion, is charged with five counts of wire fraud and five counts of theft of government property. He falsely claimed to have recruited at least seven people, totaling $10,000 in bonuses, according to the indictment.
James Keith Summers, who worked as a full-time recruiter in the Riverdale office, face five counts of wire fraud and one count of aiding and abetting in the theft of government property.
Summers wasn't eligible for the bonuses because of his job as a full-time recruiter but provided recruits' information to Howell so he could get the money, according to the indictment. Howell then gave Summers a cut of the payments.
Marc Lessor Cooper, a captain in the Utah Guard in 2009, faces one count each of wire fraud and theft of government property. The Guard's newsletter, Minuteman, says he was promoted to major in 2012. According to the indictment, he received $14,000 in payments for seven recruits.
In a July 16 indictment, reservist Darron Terry Smith was charged with four counts of wire fraud and four counts of theft of government property. He didn't appear for a scheduled court hearing Wednesday, and it was postponed to Aug. 26.
Smith claimed he knew and helped recruit 12 people, but they didn't know him, according to the indictment. He received $28,000 in payments, the indictment says.
The Utah Guard discharged Summers and Howell after an internal investigation in 2010, said spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Fairbourn. Smith transferred to Tennessee, he said. Fairbourn said Wednesday evening that he did not know Cooper's status.
Smith, an assistant professor of physician assistant studies at the University of Tennessee, said he only recently became aware of the charges and couldn't talk about them.
"I had no idea about any of it," he said. "I think the whole thing is problematic. Hopefully, it will come out."
Prior to moving to Tennessee, Smith was an adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah, BYU and Utah Valley University, and an assistant professor at Wichita State University. He said he's no longer in the Guard. He supported a Guard unit in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Prosecutors allege the four men used the Guard Recruiter Assistance Program to fraudulently obtain bonuses. The program offered financial incentives for soldiers who are not full-time recruiters to bring new members into the Guard.
To participate, soldiers had to set up an online account through Docupak, an Alabama-based marketing firm whose clients include the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Soldiers entered a potential recruit's personal information into their account and received bonuses when the recruit enlisted and left for basic training. Payments were deposited directly into the soldier's account.
Contributing: Jed Boal
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: dennisromboy
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