March 2, 2006

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)