Ethically, it’s been a rough couple of years for the military.
In July 2013, an Air Force major general went on an epic five-day bender while on a diplomatic mission in Russia. That November, Navy officials launched an investigation into misconduct involving top officers and a Malaysian contractor named Fat Leonard.
Individually, the cases are all bad news. The good news is that authorities often catch and punish government cheats, thieves and frauds. Penalties for ripping off the American taxpayer range from huge fines to hard time in prison.
And when the trial ends and punishment begins, many military ethics cases wind up in the Pentagon’s Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.
That’s right, the military maintains a database of the federal government’s worst ethics violators. Unlike many government documents, the encyclopedia is clear, easy to read … and actually quite funny. Many of the stories are as amusing as they are aggravating.
It might be the most light-hearted official report anyone’s ever written about criminals.
“Imaginary Ball and Chain Drags Staff Sergeants Down” is one highlight. The Army pays its soldiers a monthly housing allowance. Married soldiers get more cash than singles do.
To game the system, one sergeant convinced his girlfriend to pretend to be his wife. He even forged a marriage license to substantiate the union. He took taxpayers for almost $30,000 in healthcare and housing.
“The relationship must have gone sour, though,” the report reads. “She ended up turning him in to military investigators. After such a betrayal, one can only assume he will now be filing for a fake divorce.”
This kind of amusing commentary is the norm in the encyclopedia. “We try to keep it more entertaining than a U.S. attorney prosecution news release,” an official at the Department of Defense’s Standards of Conduct Office told War Is Boring.
The Standards of Conduct Office handles these kinds of cases for the Pentagon. “We are the principal ethics adviser for the secretary of defense and those serving in his office,” the official said.
The office is also responsible for updating The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures.
The failures cataloged run the gamut, from government credit-card fraud to grand larceny. Some people just want to get out of work. A listing entitled “Secret Agent Man?” describes one industrious Environmental Protection Agency official who scammed the government for close to a million bucks.
The EPA guy routinely ducked out of work … for days at a time. When his supervisors asked him about his absences, he told them he was doing top-secret work for the CIA.
“He lied about contracting malaria,” the report continues. “Which cost the EPA $8,000 over three years for a parking space reserved for the disabled.”
Another government employee at a military base was less creative. He’d just knock off every day after putting in three hours or so. Come 10 o’clock each morning, he could be found getting drunk at the local bar. “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” the encyclopedia mocks.
“People aren’t gonna flip through 200 listings of [legal briefs,]” SOCO told me. “But they will look through ours.”
Former Standards of Conduct director Stephen Epstein created The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure a decade ago. He wanted to compile ethics cases for training purposes—and also to publicly shame the goons wasting taxpayer cash.
Another common entry the encyclopedia involves misuse of government vehicles. Helicopter crews in particular have a bad habit of flying missions they aren’t cleared for.
One famous case involved a Department of Homeland Security border officer landing a helicopter next to his daughter’s elementary school. The kids were impressed. Parents, educators and the government were not.
That incident pales in comparison to what the encyclopedia calls “Taking the Blackhawk Out for Lunch.” A “concerned citizen” called an inspector general after seeing a helicopter parked behind a restaurant. A quick glance inside revealed soldiers eating lunch with civilians.
“An investigation revealed that the soldiers were on a training mission,” the encyclopedia explains. “They had properly listed the restaurant stop in their mission plan. Since the stop was properly listed, the soldiers had not violated any regulations, but they still received verbal counseling because their actions created an appearance of impropriety.”
Apparently soldiers can use a Blackhawk to run to McDonald’s, provided it’s on the flight manifest.
According to the Standards of Conduct official I spoke with, the encyclopedia has been a great success. Other government agencies even like it. “They like the realistic examples,” he said. “It also helps address the concern that people hear about complaints … but they don’t often hear the final result.”
It’s true—one particularly useful aspect of The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure is its description of perpetrators’ punishments.
The media usually only cover an ethical violation or a waste case when it first breaks. It’s easy to find information about the investigation, but hard to learn about the punishment. “We like to bring it all together and show the result as best we can,” the official said.
The EPA agent-turned-super spy spent 32 months in prison. He’s paid back most of the money, but he still owes a little more than $500,000. Investigators forced the day-drinker into early retirement. The DHS fired the border agent who took the helicopter for a joy ride to his daughter’s school.
Even with all SOCO’s hard work and training, it seems as if ethical violations are at an all time high. I asked the Standards of Conduct official about it.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I know there is an impression of increased ethical violations. But that might be down to just seeing more reporting and more people getting caught.”
Standards of Conduct will keep updating the encyclopedia as long as they need to drive home the point about ethical behavior. The public will get more great stories about idiots abusing their power—and going down for it.
Like the general who “discovered that military aides are not supposed to feed cats.”
This general routinely misused his aides. He forced them to give driving lessons to family members—and also feed a friend’s cat. He compensated them by handing out Starbucks gift cards. Investigators questioned him about the unofficial work. He agreed to fork over $2,000 to his former aides.
There’s also the six service members who married Russian brides to draw extra money for housing. Most of them had never even met the women they claimed to have married.
There’s the Navy official who faked his own death to end an affair. The countless fake companies, wild credit-card purchases and two executives at Naval Undersea Warfare Center who took religious leave to play in golf tournaments.
The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures is approaching 200 pages. Two-hundred aggravating and amusing pages. The office most recently updated the book in October. The big update usually comes in July.
“We have more time over the summer,” the SOCO official said. “It’s quieter during the summer. And we also often have an intern that helps us do some of the grunt work.”