The secretary of defence’s office and the heads of the military and DFAS have for years knowingly signed off on false entries. “I don’t think they’re lying and cheating and stealing necessarily, but it’s not the right thing to do,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said in an interview. “We’ve got to fix the processes so we don’t have to do that.”
Congress has been much more lenient on the Defense Department than on publicly traded corporations. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a response to the Enron Corp and other turn-of-the-century accounting scandals, imposes criminal penalties on corporate managers who certify false financial reports. “The concept of Sarbanes-Oxley is completely foreign” to the Pentagon, says Mike Young, a former Air Force logistics officer who for years has been a consultant on, and written about, Defense Department logistics.
Defence officials point out that most plugs represent pending transactions - like checks waiting to clear with a bank - and other legitimate manoeuvres, many of which are eventually resolved. The dollar amounts, too, don’t necessarily represent actual money lost, but multiple accounting entries for money in and money out, often duplicated across several ledgers. That’s how, for example, a single DFAS office in Columbus, Ohio, made at least $1.59 trillion - yes, trillion - in errors, including $538 billion in plugs, in financial reports for the Air Force in 2009, according to a December 2011 Pentagon inspector general report. Those amounts far exceeded the Air Force’s total budget for that year.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to comment for this article. In an August 2013 video message to the entire Defense Department, he said: “The Department of Defense is the only federal agency that has not produced audit-ready financial statements, which are required by law. That’s unacceptable.”
DFAS Director Teresa McKay declined to be interviewed for this article.
In an email response to questions from Reuters, a Treasury spokesman said: “The Department of Defense is continuing to take steps to strengthen its financial reporting. ... We’re supportive of those efforts and will continue to work with DOD as they make additional progress.” While the Treasury knowingly accepts false entries, it rejects accounts containing blank spaces for unknown numbers and totals that don’t match its own.
Senators Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, and Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, introduced legislation earlier this year that would penalize the Pentagon if it isn’t audit-ready by 2017. Under the proposed Audit the Pentagon Act of 2013, failure to meet the deadline will result in restrictions on funding for new acquisition programs, prohibit purchases of any information-technology systems that would take more than three years to install, and transfer all DFAS functions to the Treasury.
“The Pentagon can’t manage what it can’t measure, and Congress can’t effectively perform its constitutional oversight role if it doesn’t know how the Pentagon is spending taxpayer dollars,” Coburn said in an email response to questions. “Until the Pentagon produces a viable financial audit, it won’t be able to effectively prioritize its spending, and it will continue to violate the Constitution and put our national security at risk.”