WASHINGTON (CN) - The Defense Department on Wednesday suspended its effort to seek repayments of enlistment bonuses given to thousands of California National Guard members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I have ordered the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to suspend all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California National Guard members, effective as soon as is practical. This suspension will continue until I am satisfied that our process is working effectively," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement.
The effort will be halted until the Pentagon can establish a streamlined process to support affected service members in resolving the cases, the statement said.
The Pentagon had ordered roughly 9,700 California Army National Guard soldiers to repay bonuses after an audit revealed widespread fraud and mismanagement of the millions of dollars in bonuses used to boost enlistment, the Los Angeles Times first reported on Saturday.
Some recruiters reportedly offered some bonuses to soldiers without authorization, which sparked a 2010 federal investigation.
"While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not. About 2,000 have been asked, in keeping with the law, to repay erroneous payments," Carter's statement said.
The established appeals process, which hundreds of guard members have used to avoid repayment, is moving too slowly and imposing unreasonable burdens, which Carter called "unacceptable."
News that some soldiers were being asked to repay bonuses sparked a public outcry and a congressional investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., led a House letter to Carter on Tuesday denouncing efforts to force soldiers to repay the bonuses.
"Some have faced the threat of wage garnishment and tax liens if they refuse. This is no way to treat those who have fulfilled their commitments to their country. They should be held harmless in light of the fraud that was perpetrated on them by overzealous recruiters," the letter said.
The Pentagon said it will implement a system that lightens the burden on those who unknowingly received improper bonuses.
"The objective will be to complete the decision-making process on all cases as soon as possible - and no later than July 1, 2017," Carter's statement said.
McCarthy responded quickly to the Pentagon's announcement in a statement released Wednesday morning. "I am very pleased that the Department of Defense responded to the outcry from Americans across the nation. As I discussed with the Deputy Secretary of Defense last night, our veterans have already given more than what they owe to this nation, and today's swift action demonstrates that the Department agrees," the statement said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.