Friday, March 03, 2006

Legal fight over US National Guard pay intensifies

Legal fight over US National Guard pay intensifies
By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

BOSTON (Reuters) - Four Massachusetts National Guard soldiers accused the U.S. Defense Department and state officials of selectively refusing to pay travel and hotel expenses in a new addition on Thursday to a suit over on-the-job reimbursements since the September 11 attacks.

The lawsuit, initially filed in January, names Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and appears to be the first such suit in the U.S. Army National Guard, which has faced mounting demands since the September 11 attacks, lawyers in the case said.

January's complaint says the National Guard owes the soldiers for meals, car fuel, hotel costs and daily allowances.

The amendment, filed in U.S. district court in Boston on Thursday, says Massachusetts National Guard officers deliberately refused to pay the travel expenses of on-duty soldiers, as way to cut costs.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, John Shek, said a senior National Guard officer may have singled out particular positions which would not receive expenses and that officers appear to have known they lacked enough money to meet multiple demands.

Shek also said the soldiers hope the lawsuit will include at least 1,000 soldiers, seeking $73 million.

Thousands of soldiers in the Guard, a part-time force whose 440,000 members live civilian lives while doing periodic military training, were mobilized after the September 11 attacks to protect airports, borders and other possible targets. Tens of thousands also have been deployed from across the United States to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Massachusetts National Guard spokesman Maj. Winfield Danielson declined to comment on the new accusations, saying "It is a pending legal matter and we don't want to jeopardize the legal process."

He said the Guard launched an internal audit of soldier compensation issues in May, adding that properly compensating soldiers has always been a top priority.

At the heart of the suit is the system of reimbursing Guard troops who say they traveled hundreds of miles and paid for their own food, fuel and lodging to perform their duties.

Shek said while most U.S. National Guard soldiers were paid under federal orders that included daily allowances, hundreds of troops in Massachusetts were given different orders that excluded daily allowances but required the same work.

When soldiers complained of discrimination, Shek said, many were told to stop asking or risk being laid off.

Capt. Louis Tortorella, 51, spent $14,600 of his own money that has not been reimbursed, Shek said, adding that he would have been entitled to significantly more money if he had been paid the expenses for the time he worked with the Guard.

(Additional reporting by Jason Szep)