By Charles Pillar
The California National Guard benefits manager at the center of a massive fraud involving thousands of improper payments to Guard members was sentenced to 30 months in prison Wednesday.
Retired Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, 52, "deliberately misappropriated millions of dollars of federal government funds," said U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr., whose Los Angeles office prosecuted the case, in a written statement. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee ordered Jaffe to repay $15.2 million in improper bonuses and loan repayments she authorized. Her sentence will begin Aug. 31.
A Bee investigation in 2010 first exposed the fraud and how numerous officers in the Guard chain of command enabled it. In response, federal authorities cracked down on similar problems across the nation.
The incentives program was meant to pull in recruits and entice Guard members to commit to additional terms of service. The California Guard illegally or improperly paid hundreds of soldiers, including many officers – some in its own recruitment section that administered the incentive programs. A federal auditor estimated the incentive-payment fraud, which took place over several years, at up to $100 million.
Jaffe, of Citrus Heights, pleaded guilty to fraud last year and has never said publicly what motivated her. In a 2010 interview, she told The Bee that recruiters and officers above her had engaged in wrongdoing or approved of her actions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron May said the investigation continues. His office expects to file charges against two or three other Guard members. Out of about 18,000 payments examined, May said, about 10,000 were found to be improper. Maj. Thomas Keegan, a Guard spokesman, said the Guard is committed to holding "anyone who fraudulently benefited responsible for their actions."
Although the Guard's investigation is ongoing, court-martial proceedings have been initiated against eight soldiers suspected of fraud, including six commissioned officers. Six others received a formal reprimand. Other cases are undergoing final legal review.
California Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, called Jaffe's sentence "fair." A member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Air Force Reserve officer, Lieu called the sentencing "a teaching moment for the people in the Guard – if you violate the law, you will be prosecuted and will be held accountable."
In response to The Bee investigation, Lieu and Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, the committee chairman, were authors of legislation to create an independent inspector general empowered to hear whistleblower complaints. That official would report directly to the governor rather than to the top leader of the Guard.
The measure was passed by the Senate and is working its way through the Assembly.