Friday, March 23, 2012









"The purpose of today's hearing is to review the accuracy of pay to active service members in the US Army," explained US House Rep Todd Platts in his written statement this moment as he co-chaired a joint-hearing. "The hearing will examine the findings of an audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office of the Army military payroll accounts for Fiscal Year 2010. In 2010, there were nearly 680,000 active duty Army service members whose pay was handled by the Defense Finance Accounting System, or DFAS, centered in Indianapolis. GAO conducted its audit of DFAS in order to verify the accuracy and validity of Army payroll transactions."
Because of various issues with documentation, there's no way for the Government Accountability Office to truly do an audit. Chair Platts noted in his written statement, "The Army payroll is also a significant portion of total Department of Defense. As a result, the Department of Defense cannot pass an audit unless the payroll systems are auditable." It you can't audit, there's no accountability and no real oversight.
That hearing started a little late and there was concern about votes being called shortly so to speed things along, Platts, Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Organization, Efficiency and Financial Management and Senator Thomas Carper, Chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Financial Management Committee, waived their opening remarks and entered the written remarks into the record. Appearing before the two Subcommittees were the Army Reserve's LTC Kirk Zecchini, the GAO's Asif Khan, the Army's Director of Accountability and Audit Readiness James Watkins, the Army's Director of Technology and Business Architecture Integration Jeanne Brooks and Aaron Gillison, the Deputy Director of Defense Finance and Accounting Service-Indianapolis.
US House Rep Darrell Issa is the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and he made a surprise appearance as well.
Chair Darrell Issa: I came here for two reasons. First of all, when the House of the People [House of Representatives] and the other house [Senate] get together, it means that we have what it takes to move positive legislation all in one room so it's always preferrable to have us hear the same thing and come away from a hearing knowing we have to act and how we have to act. So the second reason is that, Colonel, like you, I was an enlisted man, paper leave and earning statements, 1970, it was real paper, as it was for Senator Carper. If one piece of paper got ripped out of there, it was gone forever. My enlisted time was fairly uneventful although I had a lot of TDY [Temporary Duty] and a lot of different supplemental dollars as an EOD enlisted man. But when I was commissioned, I saw the other side of it. I was responsible for up to 200 men and women who were constantly having to get compassionate pay, they were having to get 25 or 50 dollars because when the PCSd [Permanent Change of Station] in the paper work got lost. We would keep them sometimes for a couple of months not getting their real pay because there was a problem -- particularly if they were coming from overseas. That was approaching half a century ago. We've come a long way, we've come from paper to electronic. But we haven't come far enough to have the kind of proactive effort to where you should never have to say, "Well how do we pay this person? What do we do? Do we send them to the USO or do we in fact find some other way?" And, more importantly, do we no longer have people who receive pay and then somehow say, "Oh, that was a SNAFU and for the next six months, we're going to be deducting." I represent [Marine Corps Base] Camp Pendleton and, as a result, I see that happening. Naval assets and private assets have to find ways to take care of families because there's been an overpayment and then it has to be repaid. Last but not least, I had the pleasure of leaving the Army and the only time I've ever been audited -- personally audited -- was the year I left the Army and there's nothing worse than trying to explain all these various per diems in pays that are tax free if X,Y and Z to a man who's never served in the military but whose job it is to get a little money out of you. So I believe that when we get to where we do the job right, it will for our men and women in uniform, especially those who have families who are also earning and they've got to bring these together in a predictable way to make payments. So I'm glad to see that my good friend Chairman [Edolphus] Towns is also here. That gives us an awful lot of legacy of this Committee to hear it and to respond. So, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you all for being here today and I yield back.
Edolphus Towns is the Ranking Member (and former Chair) also chose to submit his opening statements for the record. The lack of accountability, the inability to do an audit, should be disturbing from a taxpayer stand point. We're going to focus on LTC Kirk Zecchini who has served 28 years (for any wondering, he's served in both of the current wars -- Iraq and Afghanistan) and his testimony to provide one person's struggle to get the pay they deserve and have earned. The excerpt that follows will be in order but we'll do jump cuts (indicated by: "[. . .]") to work through several examples.
Chair Todd Platts: In your time, have you ever had an instance where you -- because pay was not properly provided to you -- that it ended up a hardship, financial hardship, because of incorrect balance in a checking account or are you aware of any soldiers you've served with who have?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: Well, from my personal experience, the only real hardship that I encountered was when I was in Afghanistan and my pay just stopped for about a month-and-a-half and I still had a mortgage and I still had bills to pay back home. Fortunately, I had a little bit of savings while I was still deployed but, yeah, that was a really tense period, not knowing when the pay was going to get turned back on again.
Chair Todd Platts: In that example, where it was delayed, was there any compensation -- meaning any interest for the two months that were not properly paid when it finally was?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: No, sir.
[. . .]
Chair Thomas Carper: I guess you're not the only person you served with who had some problems with pay. We did in my unit, I presume you had problems in your unit. Were the problems similar in nature to those you experienced, or were they different? Were there any commonalities? Or was it just across the board, wide variety of problems?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: I can't say that I've ever experienced the same problem twice.
Chair Thomas Carper: How about when you think of your colleagues with whom you served? Did they have similar problems or were they different kinds of problems?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: I would have to say different. Again, my experiences were different from the typical Guardsman, where I had a lot of active duty time, a lot of TDYs. I did a lot more than outside of the one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-in-the-summer.
Chair Thomas Carper: Sure sounds like you did.
LTC Kirk Zecchini: So I'd have to say that mine were a little bit different and broader than most of my peers.
Chair Thomas Carper: You allued to this, but I think you said there was a period of a month or two when you didn't get paid at all. And when I think of overseas, I was married and had no wife or children and the Navy pretty much took care of our immediate needs, they fed us and gave us a place to sleep and there was medical care and that kind of thing and so we were able to save -- guys like me, we were able to save like every other pay check. We didn't make much money but we didn't spend much either. I had no wife or children to support. I tried to help my sister a little bit to go to college but that was the big obligation I had. But that's not the case with a lot of folks. Especially today when we have a lot of Reservists deployed to activated deployed, we have a lot of Guardsman and women activated deployed and they do have families. And when they have problems with their pay, it's a whole lot more difficult and a lot more complex. Okay, put yourself in the position of just providing good advice through us, but for us, to the folks who are charged with fixing these problems. I realize we'll never get to perfection. That should be our goal. And if you were just to provide some advice, good advice, with the folks charged with fixing this, and our job is to have oversight and try to make sure that it's addressed, what would be the advice? It can be fairly general, it doesn't have to be specific. One of the best, I'll give you an example, we had a guy before us testifying on the Finance Committee a couple of months ago on deficit reduction and I asked him what do we need to do on deficit reduction -- he's Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, professor of economics at Princeton -- and asked what do we do on deficit reduction? His big deal on deficit reduction is health care cost -- if we don't reign in corporate health care costs we're doomed. He said I'm not a health economist but I asked him what you'd do about reigning in the deficit, he said, "I'm not a health care economist but here's what I'd do: I'd find out what works, I'd do more of that." That's exactly what he said. "I'd find out what works, do more of that." I said, "You mean find out what doesn't work and do less of that?" And he said yes. So that's actually pretty good advice in everything we do, not just reigning in health care costs. But what should we do here? What should the folks in the Dept of Defense do to address this problem?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: Well obviously, I have seen a lot of changes in 28 years from paper statements to electronic statements now. And those have all been, you know, good things. Most recently Defense Travel System came online, where you can enter your travel claims online and that was huge. That really took the paper work piece and it streamlined the process for travel vouchers. You get paid now in three or four days where it used to take you a month to get your travel pay.
Chair Thomas Carper: So that's a great improvement?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: Yes. DTS was, in my mind, great. But not everyone has access to DTS. I had access because I was full time federal technician where most traditional Guardsman and Reservists don't -- don't have that system yet.
[. . .]
Ranking Member Edolphus Towns: How many times did you [. . .] have the pay problem during your years of service?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: After I started talking to Mr. Tyler last week, I started thinking back to my career. I gave him some good examples but -- the ones I just testified to -- but I can think of several other ones that weren't such a big deal and they were pretty easy to fix at the unit level. But --
Ranking Member Edolphus Towns: It was so many times you can't remember? Is that what you're saying?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: Yes.
Ranking Member Edolphus Towns: Wow. How widespread is the problem among others?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: I mean, you hear people talking about pay issues, you hear, you know, just dining chow how talk, people always -- somebody always seems to have a pay issue that they're dealing with.
Ranking Member Edolphus Towns: How long did it take, the longest period, for you to correct your pay?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: The example I mentioned about my one-and-a-half-months without pay in Afghanistan that was the longest that I ever went without a pay check. But the longest that I ever had to deal with a problem in getting resolution to the problem was the one where I didn't get my various allowances from my missions in Southeast Asia. That took about a year-and-a-half.
Ranking Member Edolphus Towns: Wow. Could you just walk us through one process of how you went about it to get paid? Just briefly.

LTC Kirk Zecchini: About what?
Ranking Member Edolphus Towns: Walk us through a process you had to take in order to get paid. In other words, you didn't get your check and what you had to do in order to get it?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: Well the example I mentioned about the pay in allowances from Southeast Asia, I was working in Bangladesh and the Philippines and all through Southeast Asia. Each of these different countries has a different rate for hostile pay fire in the Philippines or hardship duty pay in Bangladesh and I wasn't even aware that these allowances were there when I was performing the duty. It was just through talking with my active duty counter-parts who were there with me that I was informed that we were entitled to these allowances. So when I got back to Ohio, I went back to my unit and inquired about getting these allowances. I actually had to look through the regulations. There's a chart they have in the rig that tells you that if you're in this location during this time of year, you're entitled to this much money. It was a pretty complex set of numbers and my unit clerk, my unit administrator, certainly didn't know how to process that, so that's when it got pushed up the chain of command. It went to Military Pay. Military Pay didn't seem to know anything about it. And, you know, time went on, I put together a spread-sheet. I actually did a lot of the legwork for them to make it easier to understand what I was supposed to get as opposed to what I did get. And, uh, it languished. And eventually I wrote a letter to the Ohio Inspector General requesting assistance. And that's when I finally got some action.
[. . .]
Chair Todd Platts: At what point in that year-and-a-half long process [on the Southeast Asia pay issues], how long had you tried working through the channels before you went that route to get it taken care of?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: I went to my unit initially in August of 2004, I would say the very next month, in September, it got pushed up the chain to the Ohio State Headquarters.
Chair Todd Platts: Alright.
LTC Kirk Zecchini: And I worked the issue with them probably until August of '05 when I was getting ready to go to Iraq, I knew I was going to be deployed again, so at that point I really just had to do something.
Chair Todd Platts: Right. So-so, for about a year, you kind of worked through the regular channels without success and this is something, once you were aware of, seems pretty straight forward. You were in this country, you qualified, yet a year later, you still weren't being compensated accordingly.
LTC Kirk Zecchini: And it was a significant dollar amount too. It wasn't --
Chair Todd Platts: Roughly, round number?
LTC Kirk Zecchini: As I recall, it was a couple thousand dollars allowances.
Again, main point regarding waste and oversight: It can't be determined because the DoD can't be truly audited with so many problems with regards to their records. Main point with regards to those who are serving, it is a battle just to get paid and to be paid what you've earned.
From the Congress, to the north, Michael Bell is a former Canadian diplomat of many years and now is Professor Bell at the University of Windsor where he focuses on the Middle East. From time to time, he also writes a column for the Globe & Mail. Today he weighs in on Iraq:

The Americans had sufficient control and influence to prevent a rout in Iraq, but as that control dissipated and their efforts at democratization became increasingly problematic, they changed horses. Since their departure, they have devoted their best efforts to helping Mr. Maliki consolidate Iraq as a viable state player because of its geostrategic importance, despite his increasingly well-documented abuses. Barack Obama's administration is proceeding, reluctantly, with the sale to Iraq of more than $10-billion in military equipment, much of which is serviceable for control and intimidation.
Mr. Maliki has increasingly used the power of the state to consolidate his own autocracy, accused by human-rights groups of intimidation, corruption, deceit, torture and cronyism. Witness the arrest warrant issued for his Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi. Witness his son and deputy chief of staff Ahmed, reputed to be the most powerful person in his entourage. Anyone deemed a threat is at risk for their lives in Mr. Maliki's Iraq.