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Editorial: Fix the LQA mess at DoD

Aug. 4, 2013 - 11:17AM   |  
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A self-created mess of astounding proportions has ensnared hundreds of Defense Department civilian employees and put them on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars each — all because of an administrative screw-up.

In May, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright decided to hold 659 DoD feds stationed overseas liable for living quarters allowances (LQA) they received every month dating back to 1986.

In some cases, the tab is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The employees did nothing wrong, the department readily admits — the snafu owes to unnamed DoD administrators who misinterpreted a State Department regulation outlining who is eligible to receive LQA and then certified the employees as eligible. The housing allowance varies by location but generally amounts to between $30,000 and $50,000 per year per employee.

After discovering they erroneously handed out hundreds of millions of dollars of LQAs over more than two decades, Wright and other DoD officials responded as only a brigade of lawyers could appreciate. They determined which employees were erroneously paid and by how much, informed them of their new debt obligations, directed the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to garnish paychecks and future pension checks, and canceled their housing allowances (after allowing a one-year transition period that will not have to be repaid).

This response may be legal, but it is unfair and unjust. Assigning potentially ruinous debts created by the department’s mistakes to employees who contributed their careers to the nation’s service in good faith is reprehensible.

Those officials responsible for this gross outrage, including Wright, should be held accountable.

As one affected employee, Pete McCollaum, wrote in a recent paper on this: “The intended consequence of these actions is to shift the burden of responsibility away from policy makers and certifying officials, thus divesting the DoD of any consequence for the last 30 years of policy mismanagement.”

Affected employees can apply for an individual waiver from their so-called debts. But the decision to approve waivers rests with a small independent agency, not the department.

Worse yet, to apply for a waiver, employees must sign a form acknowledging the size of their debt.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in a memo last week that, signing the waiver application form “does not constitute an admission of liability for the debt. Rather, it acknowledges that he or she does not intend to dispute the validity or the amount of the debt during the waiver process.” How is it possible that such an acknowledgment does not constitute an admission of liability for the debt?

Quite the opposite should be required: The department should in each case state that the error is solely the department’s and in no way is an admission of debt liability by the employee.

Congress must now pass legislation declaring employees free and clear of any debt and allowing them to continue receiving LQA.

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