By Donna Leinwand | USA TODAY
A two-year spat between the U.S. Air Force and the Civil Air Patrol has escalated to congressional proportions, with the military portraying the volunteer search-and-rescue corps as power-crazed over-spenders in need of federal babysitting.
The Air Force tally of CAP offenses includes a southeast region conference on a Caribbean cruise, vast quantities of missing equipment, cushy first-class travel, missing and misused federal funds, and a political coup that drove a reform-minded commander to resign.
Although that list grew in recent months, the military began amassing its case for broader oversight more than three years ago after a teen-age Air Patrol cadet spent the night in her national commander’s hotel room and the Air Force discovered there was little it could do about it.
With $28 million and five decades of relative independence at stake, the CAP has responded with fists clenched for a fight and a $100,000 lobbying campaign that characterizes Air Force brass as control freaks bent on enlarging their empire.
The controversy, though, has exposed the underbelly of an often contentious organization whose 67-member governing board appears to rival Congress for political intrigue.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Col Greg Florey, an Air Force Inspector General assigned to Maxwell Air Base, home of CAP’s national headquarters.
“People make complaints and the Air Force is kind of powerless to go in and make any changes.”
That’s right, said CAP’s National Commander, Gen James C. Bobick, a retired Air Force colonel from Aurora, CO. Although its 60,000 volunteer members nationwide wear Air Force-style uniforms and federal money makes up almost 95 percent of its budget, the Civil Air Patrol is a civilian organization. And, said Gen Bobick, CAP disciplines its own.
“I can assure you that our rules and regulations are just as stringent as the Air Force rules and regulations,” he said.
Now, Congress is moving toward ordering the Civil Air Patrol to open its ledgers and submit its members to the fine-toothed combs of the General Accounting Office, the Inspector General of the Air Force, and the military’s criminal investigative arm for what will be the most intrusive and extensive scrutiny of its 51-year history.
The hybrid nature of the Civil Air Patrol, known for its cadet corps and search-and-rescue missions, provoked power struggles for years. For most of its history, the Air Force kept sharper watch. But as the Cold War ended and military budgets drew tight, the Air Force decided to scrimp on CAP oversight, figuring it could use those salaries to pay for desperately needed pilots.
Then, in 1995, the Air Force had what it calls a “standards of conduct problem” within the CAP.
A female, teen-age cadet in CAP’s training program spent the night in the hotel room assigned to Gen Richard L. Anderson, then the National Commander.
Gen Anderson tells the story like this: At the end of the day’s events at a CAP Wing Conference near Detroit, Gen Anderson left his hotel room to buy a soda. In the hallway, he saw a cadet he had met earlier that day. He invited her to talk in his room. Later, he left to get the soda. When he returned, he found her asleep on his bed. Gen Anderson left the room for an adjoining common area where he spent the night. The next morning, he awakened the cadet and sent her to her room.
“It was, in reality, a very innocent event,” Gen Anderson said in an interview.
CAP investigated and cleared Gen Anderson, who served out his term and is now a Lieutenant Colonel with the United States Pacific Command in Honolulu. But the incident hoisted a red flag at the Pentagon, showing that the Air Force had no real power to investigate the civilian volunteers.
But Air Force scrutiny of the Air Patrol grew intense.
National Commander Gen Paul Bergman, who served after Gen Anderson, said he came to realize the organization needed to soothe Air Force concerns and restore greater Air Force oversight.
Gen Bergman said he saw executives in headquarters ignoring employee complaints and spending money frivolously on expensive hotel rooms and unnecessarily travel, often using first-class airfares.
Some members failed to perform mandated aircraft safety checks or document them properly, Gen Bergman said, adding that people who complained about those and other problems were branded troublemakers and often denied membership renewals.
Gen Bergman said his complaints upset executive director Paul Albano and the patrol’s board and he was pressured to resign.
Gen Bobick, who assumed the top spot, said no one pressured Gen Bergman to resign. He also disputed Bergman’s account of conditions at headquarters.
The Air Force has examined the “employee handbook, our investigation and complaint process,” he said. “They verbally said our program was fine … We are not allowed to spend one penny of federal money without prior approval of the Air Force.”
In April, Air Force inspectors spent three days dissecting files at the Civil Air Patrol’s Montgomery headquarters and bolstering their case for congressional interference.
A Caribbean cruise raised particular concern. Volunteer members paid their own way, but some employees claimed reimbursement for meals although the cruise provided food, auditors found.
Auditors also found instances where members charged personal flights to the Air Patrol’s counter-narcotics fund and at least one instance in which the Great Lakes Regional Commander sought reimbursement twice for the same flight. Auditors could not find some equipment that the agency had purchased.
Rebutting the audit, Gen Bobick, the national commander, said, “I think they have no case. It’s a lot of innuendo.”
The Air Force approved the funds for the cruise, he said. He explained that extra reimbursement for meals covered travel to and from the cruise, and said if employees flew first class it was because they used their own frequent flier miles to upgrade. Gen Bobick declined an explanation for the Great Lakes commander.
Before taking the case to Congress, Air Force officials said, they spent two years pounding futilely against a stubborn Civil Air Patrol culture that resents change.
“We didn’t end-run them,” said James Wolffe, a special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force. “We told them exactly what we were going to do. There comes a point where you have to stop talking and do something.”