In January 2015, members of the Pentagon’s bomb squad got some financially devastating news: They had been overpaid for years, the Defense Department informed them, and the government wanted the money back — all of it.
For some bomb technicians, that meant they had suddenly accrued debts of up to $173,000. And going forward, defense officials also told them, their annual pay would be cut by 25 percent.
All because of what the government described as a clerical error that the Pentagon bureaucracy itself — not the bomb squad members — had made.
The decision has caused chaos in the unit, with some opting to leave and others expressing exasperation that they never would have taken the job had they known what was coming. More than a year later, the cases of none of the nine employees involved has been fully resolved as they wade through a Pentagon appeals process.
“When they tell you that they’re going to stop part of your pay, that’s tough,” said a bomb squad member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation. “But when they tell you ‘We want it back,’ It’s like ‘What?!” I think that’s what upset so many people. If I knew I was going to be in this mess … I never would have joined.”
The case began in the fall of 2014 when an anonymous complaint was filed with the Defense Department inspector general’s office. At issue was whether the nine-man unit deserved a 25 percent hazardous-duty pay incentive that had been approved as the unit was established in 2008.
The case, first reported by Military.com, was quickly brushed aside by the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, which oversees the bomb squad, according to military documents and emails reviewed by The Washington Post.
But then a little-known Defense Department office got involved. Washington Headquarters Services (WHS), which provides administrative oversight to numerous Pentagon agencies, found not only that the payments should be stopped, but also that the employees involved should be referred for collection.
The case has little comparison in the private sector, said Catherine Fisk, an employment-law professor at the University of California at Irvine. While most employees working on an “at-will” basis can be fired or have their pay cut with little notice, there isn’t a legal basis under which a company could recoup money it had promised to pay unless the employees did something clearly improper or illegal such as filing false expense reports, she said.
Frustration has only mounted since April 23, when one of the most senior members of the squad, Axel Fernandez, committed suicide at his home near Fredericksburg, Va., according to the police report. His death ended a government career that began as an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the Marine Corps in 1987.
Colleagues of Fernandez blame his suicide at least in part on the Pentagon bureaucracy that demanded that he return part of every paycheck he had ever received since being hired away from Capitol Police in 2008. His total debt: More than $136,000.
The decision to rescind the hazard-duty pay was made by Susan A. Yarwood, then the director of WHS human resources. In an April 2015 letter, she apologized to the bomb-squad members affected but said the WHS had requested an audit to determine their “overpayment amounts.”
Yarwood, since promoted to deputy director at the WHS, said in a statement that she met with bomb-squad members and promised to make sure that WHS would recommend that the people affected not have to repay the Pentagon.
“I assured them the information provided by WHS about the overpayments would include clear support for waiving the debt,” Yarwood said.
But she referred the cases to collection by the Pentagon’s Defense Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS) agency anyway, citing Pentagon policy. And there were no guarantees that an appeals process would find in favor of the unit.
Michael L. Rhodes, a higher-ranking defense official, sent a memo in September acknowledging that bomb-squad members “reasonably believed they were eligible for and would receive hazardous duty pay,” including when they were recruited to the job. The employees affected “did not know nor could reasonably have known that the payments were erroneous” and deserved consideration for a waiver that would wipe the debt out, Rhodes added.
By then, however, Fernandez and other members of his unit already were months into the process. In one email sent to DFAS that month, he questioned how the debt-collection and waiver process worked and what he saw as conflicting information.
“I’m sure you can understand how sensitive and life changing this matter is to all that are involved and adversely affected,” Fernandez wrote in one of several emails. The process, he added, “is becoming impossible to successfully navigate.”
In other messages to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Fernandez wrote that if he had known the hazardous-duty pay promised in his offer letter was not legitimate, he never would have left his position with U.S. Capitol Police. He said that officials in WHS “flimflammed” other parts of the Defense Department into thinking that the hazard pay approved was “merely a typographical error.”
Fernandez’s job offer letter, dated September 2008, said his base pay was $69,081, with a Washington-area cost-of-living supplement of $14,431, bringing the total to $83,512. With an additional 25 percent in hazardous-duty pay, the letter said, he would receive $104,390 annually.
His wife declined to comment.
Fernandez was the first recruit to the bomb squad, which was assembled by Richard Coleman, an Army veteran who still serves as its commander. It was formed as the Pentagon sought to improve the speed of its response to potentially dangerous devices. Military explosive ordnance disposal units from nearby bases, including Fort McNair in Washington and Fort Belvoir in Virginia, had handled the mission in the past but had to contend with traffic and other delays.
Most members are still waiting for determinations on how much money they owe. The Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals, which weighs in on a variety of personnel decisions, has determined so far that two employees can keep all but a few hundred dollars in past hazardous-duty pay, but they still owe money from one paycheck issued after they were notified, defense officials said. Others, including the Fernandez family, are awaiting a decision — and the 25 percent pay cut still stands for all members.
The bomb squad, meanwhile, is now down to almost half-strength. Known formally as the hazardous devices division of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, it now has five members, with some leaving for better-paying jobs in agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, a current member said.
Coleman declined to comment, but his wife, Linda, said the effort to reverse the Pentagon’s decision has weighed on the Army veteran, who saw service in Vietnam and the Gulf War. He is on medication for high blood pressure and struggles at times to sleep, she said. He received more than $173,000 in hazardous-duty pay that remains in question.
“All these guys, he feels like he’s responsible for their welfare,” Coleman’s wife said. “It isn’t like it’s their problem. It’s his problem. I can see the stress, and until this is resolved, it’s going to wear on him.”
The Pentagon Force Protection Agency, in a written statement, said the issue is a “tremendously unfortunate situation for our employees.” The agency has called for debts of bomb-squad members to be waived, but it doesn’t appear to have pressed to restore hazardous-duty pay to those who expected it.
Gordon Trowbridge, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department takes the issue seriously and is “working to have this debt waived for all affected employees as quickly as possible.”
The case has drawn questions from employment lawyers on how it has been handled by the government.
One lawyer who previously represented the bomb squad, Debra A. D’Agostino of the Federal Practice Group, said one next logical step would be for the Pentagon police force to go to OPM and make a case that the bomb-squad members should be compensated with some other form of incentive pay if hazard pay is not approved. That, she said, would help keep them in line with technicians from other agencies.
“There’s the issue going backward and the issue of their pay rate going forward, and I think the issue going forward is tougher for them to address,” she said of the pay cut currently in place. “This is one of those things with the government where anyone would ask, ‘What is the government doing?’” and ‘Why isn’t the government fixing this mess it created?’”
Mark Zaid, another Washington lawyer who has worked DFAS cases in the past, said the technicians probably have little recourse to appeal the pay cut other than finding another job, but there’s still the question of how the Defense Department is treating them, he said.
“From a policy standpoint, is this the right, smart move?” Zaid asked. “You’ve got guys here who are risking their lives … at a time where there is an intense threat and fear of this very type of weaponry being used against us. You need to have the best and the brightest, and sometimes that costs money.”
That sentiment is little consolation to the families affected in the bomb-squad case, however.
The wife of one of the technicians said they moved their family from out of state to join the unit in 2012 and never would have relocated had they been aware that the offer letter they received contained incorrect information. The appeals office recently decided that the squad member would be allowed to keep most of his past hazardous-duty pay, but the family now has a mortgage that they are struggling to afford because of the lost income, she said.
“We would be making more money in a much cheaper place to live if we had just stayed there,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against her husband. “I feel like we got hung out to dry.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.