Staring Debt in the Face

Hapless Military Personnel Are Ordered to Use Plastic, Get Dunned by the Pentagon

Top Pentagon officials are grinding out publicity about their get-tough probes of credit-card abuse, but their investigations apparently have nothing to do with the cards' shattering effects on the piggy banks of their military personnel.

In late June, for instance, DOD Comptroller Dov Zakheim scheduled a Pentagon press conference to announce the findings of a special task force ordered by Donald Rumsfeld to investigate the military's credit card programs. Zakheim did mention servicepeople's "abuse" of the card; legal and consumer concerns were not raised.

Vince Crawley, a reporter for the Military Times, raised those issues with Zakheim, and the comptroller, who's the Pentagon's chief financial officer, seemed caught off guard.

illustration: Anthony Freda

"You're effectively forcing people to get into a third-party contract with Bank of America," Crawley told Zakheim, according to a transcript of the press conference, "and they're personally responsible for getting the card paid. Has anybody looked at the legality of that?"

"Oh, sure," Zakheim replied. "Look, a person can always refuse to take a card. You know, nobody's forcing you to take the card."

"But there's a mandatory use requirement," Crawley said, "It's the law."

"Well," Zakheim said, pausing to lean away from the microphone and toward an aide. "Yes. It's true. It's the law. So, yes, the law is telling you to do it, but . . . correct me if I'm wrong, have people been violently against the use of credit cards, or rather, charge cards? We haven't heard any protest against it."

Colonel Judith Varnau protested the travel card even before the day her application came in the mail in March 2000 at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita. She signed the form, but scribbled in the margins: "I have signed this under duress. I have not voluntarily, for fear of losing my job."

The bank activated her card, so she wrote back, "Again, I state that I am not, nor have I been willing to enter into this private contract. . . . I am only following orders to obtain the card out of fear of losing my job, adversely affecting my career, or resulting in conviction and possible imprisonment."

Ten days later, her card was canceled. A week after that, she was in the office of her wing commander, Colonel Frederick Roggero. Under air force policy, if a card is canceled, personnel are expected to pay expenses in cash or from other credit cards. Roggero, instead, gave Varnau an ultimatum.

"It's either leaving or staying," a voice identified by Varnau as Roggero said on an audiotape Varnau secretly recorded during many closed-door meetings.

She decided to stay, and to fight the card. She wrote state representatives and senators in protest. She asked the Pentagon for whistle-blower protection. She filed five criminal charges against Roggero, with specifications—extortion, extortion with threats, conspiracy, solicitation, and false official statements, all serious criminal offenses with maximum jail time of three years. She kept the unreleased tapes as the final trump card, if her day in military court should come.

That day might never come. After two years of fighting the policy, Varnau's charges against Roggero were dropped for lack of evidence, according to the air force press office. But no proper investigation was ever made, Varnau contends, and the air force lost her file three times in one year. Once a colonel running a small clinic, the 55-year-old Varnau now pushes papers in a dead-end job that she says was created just for her. "I'm blackballed," Varnau tells the Voice. "I'm the black sheep. My career is over. I've got no place to go."

Roggero, on the other hand, was recently promoted to brigadier general. He now works at the Pentagon as director of marketing for the the air force.

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