Seven soldiers were arrested Wednesday as part of the latest group of service members to face federal charges relateding to the National Guard’s troubled and now-defunct Recruiting Assistance Program.
The soldiers, all members of the New York Army National Guard, are accused of scheming to obtain "fraudulent recruiting bonuses," Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
The soldiers arrested are:
- Staff Sgt. Evette Merced, 45.
- Sgt. 1st Class Darryl Harrison, 51.
- Staff Sgt. Siul Celeste, 29.
- Staff Sgt. Jeanette Arizaga, 41.
- Sgt. Yesenia Adames, 43.
- Sgt. Renetta Edwards, 40.
- Sgt. Jefferson Simbanamuzo, 41.
"Those who join the National Guard nobly serve their fellow citizens, but, as alleged, these defendants used their positions in the National Guard to steal," Bharara said.
The Army cannot discuss specific details of this or any other case associated with potential RAP fraud, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, an Army spokesman, said in a statement.
"This is a criminal matter under investigation," he said. "The Army is participating in a multi-agency task force to investigate and resolve fraudulent actions associated with the Recruiting Assistance Program and has had a sizable task force investigating other instances of RAP fraud for more than three years."
Wednesday's arrests come less than three months after 25 current and former soldiers from the Puerto Rico National Guard were charged with similar offenses. Charges in that case included wire fraud, aggravated identify theft and participating in a conspiracy to defraud the United States and the National Guard Bureau of money and property.
The Guard Recruiting Assistance Program, also known as G-RAP, was launched in late 2005 as a way to boost sagging recruiting numbers during the height of the war in Iraq.
Program participants, or recruiter assistants (RAs), could earn up to $2,000 for every new soldier they recruited into the Guard. The RA would receive the first $1,000 when the recruit enlisted and the rest of the money once the new soldier shipped to basic training.
The program was highly successful, bringing in thousands of new soldiers into the Guard. It later came under scrutiny for widespread fraud and abuse, even drawing a hearing on Capitol Hill.
The G-RAP was suspended in January 2012. Then-Army Secretary John McHugh terminated all recruiting assistance programs a month later.
The charges against the defendants go back to 2007.
Under the G-RAP, only RAs were eligible to receive referral bonuses for bringing in new recruits. The program required RAs to establish an online account in their name to record their referral and recruitment efforts. The RA would then input personal identifying information for each recruit into that account.
Beginning in 2007, Merced and Harrison, who then served as full-time, salaried recruiters for the Army National Guard, "abused their positions … by providing the personal identifying information of potential soldiers" to Celeste, Arizaga, Adames and Edwards "in exchange for thousands of dollars in kickbacks," according to the U.S. attorney's office.
Celeste, Arizaga, Adames and Edwards then used their respective online RA accounts to falsely claim that they were responsible for referring those soldiers to the New York Guard.
The four received bonus payments worth more than $62,000 from the G-RAP and "kicked back a significant portion of those payments to Merced and Harrison," according to the U.S. attorney's office.
In a similar but separate scheme, Simbanamuzo, a police officer in the New York Police Department, used his online RA account to falsely claim he was responsible for referring soldiers to the New York Guard.
Charges against Merced and Harrison, the two full-time recruiters in the group, include conspiracy to commit bribery, solicitation and receipt of bribes, theft of government funds, and aggravated identity theft.
Each charge carries anywhere from two to 10 years in prison.
Celeste, Arizaga, Adames and Edwards were each charged with conspiracy to commit bribery, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and theft of government funds, which carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Simbanamuzo is charged with theft of government funds, which can bring up to 10 years in prison.