With the Air Force accusing its civilian auxiliary of fraud, financial mismanagement and safety lapses, Congress is poised to order a double-barreled investigation of the Civil Air Patrol, the nation’s premier volunteer search and rescue agency.
Escalating a three-year feud between the top ranks of the two organizations, the Air Force asked Congress in May to give it broad oversight over the CAP and its 60,000 volunteers, to ensure accountability for the nearly 30 million in tax dollars the auxiliary spends out of the Air Force budget each year.
After CAP leaders denied the allegations, accused the Air Force of a power grab and mustered a grassroots lobbying campaign, the Senate approved a compromise directing the General Accounting Office and the Pentagon inspector general to investigate the charges and recommend appropriate action.
Congress is expected to enact the compromise as part of the fiscal 2000 defense bill after it returns from the Independence Day recess. In the meantime, Acting Air Force Secretary Whitten Peters and Gen James A. Bobick, National CAP Commander, have begun direct negotiations under the auspices of key senators to settle their differences.
“It was candid, open and very productive,” Bobick said of the meeting with Peters last week that was arranged by Sen Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen Wayne Allard, R-Colorado. Jim Wolffe, a special assistant to Peters, said both sides laid out their concerns and “a lot of progress was made on most of the contentious issues that have divided us.”
The battle lines between the two organizations began evolving in 1996, when Air Force auditors concluded that the Air Force needed greater control over CAP to comply with federal laws and Pentagon regulations governing tax dollars.
A subsequent Air Force audit and a visit to CAP headquarters in Montgomery, AL, in April by a special assessment team produced allegations that:
• Top CAP executives had claimed double expenses for a southeast region conference on board a Caribbean cruise ship.
• Some CAP units had claimed both federal and state expenses for the same counter drug missions.
• Several CAP wings could not account for more than 70 percent of the communications equipment purchased with Air Force funds.
• Some CAP members and former members had claimed retaliation from CAP officials for complaining about lost equipment, aircraft safety practices and in at least one case, an assault.
The CAP issued a point-by-point denial of the allegations and leveled a few of its own. A statement from CAP headquarters noted that all CAP expenditures are approved by Air Force personnel before they are reimbursed, including the cruise ship conference expenses.
“The AF currently requires $18.3 million to oversee CAP’s $28.3 million appropriations,” the statement said. “This equates to an oversight cost of 70 cents for every dollar appropriated to CAP. Wasteful?”
The Senate compromise calling for independent investigators to sort out the facts seems to have quieted the rhetoric on both sides. Gen Bobick and Wolffe, in interviews last week, say they’re optimistic an agreement can be reached without Congress having to step next year and impose a solution.