FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Eight California Air National Guard pilots are under criminal investigation for allegedly padding their salaries by getting paid for more than one shift on the same day, according to a Sacramento Bee investigation.
The newspaper also reported Sunday that the practice may go back many years and could have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
It may also have potentially jeopardized public and pilot safety by failing to provide pilots with adequate rest, the Bee reported.
“There is at a minimum an appearance that (commanders) self-enriched,” said Col. John Crocker, governmental and public affairs director for the California Guard. “And boy, does that smell bad.”
The Bee reported that the federal Air Force Office of Special Investigations is conducting the investigation. The agency declined to provide details about its probe.
At issue is a practice that allows pilots to be placed on alert to respond to any emergencies.
The pilots with the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno are accused of earning full pay for standby shifts spent at home and on vacation — a practice referred to by some pilots as “dozing for dollars.”
A recent federal audit says the practice violates U.S. law and military regulations against “double dipping” — more than one payday on the same calendar day.
The pay discrepancies go back to at least 2008 and allowed the pilots to boost their salaries by tens of thousands of dollars, according to the audit.
But a memo obtained by the Bee suggests the practice went at least as far back as the early 1970s. It was sent by Lt. Col. Victor S. Sikora, a squadron commander and pilot, to the National Guard Bureau, the agency that audited the Fresno-based Guard unit.
Sikora wrote that ending the system of dual payments for the same day of work would be “destructive to morale and not sustainable.”
He said it would also remove pilots’ incentive to sign up for alert duty.
Crocker acknowledged that the payments may have gone back several years, but said all payments suspected of being improper are no longer made.
Among the pilots included in the probe are Col. Gary Taylor, commander of the 144th Fighter Wing. He made $268,000 last year and was on pace to earn $316,000 this year, according to the audit.
More than 40 percent of his income was allegedly improper. The Bee reported that he has been relieved of his command.
Brig. Gen. Jonathan Flaugher, former assistant adjutant general for the state Guard and Taylor’s predecessor as wing commander, has also been named as part of the probe.
He was placed on paid administrative leave, according to the Bee.
Both he and Taylor declined comment.
The names of the six other pilots — all at the rank of at least captain — have not been released, but they have been grounded indefinitely since September.
A review by the Bee of the Fresno pilots’ work schedules included in the audit also found they were on standby for more hours than they were allowed, which could have affected their ability to fly safely.
Sunday’s story follows an investigation by the Bee in October that found evidence of up to $100 million in improper or illegal bonuses and student loan repayments for California Army National Guard members.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)