Senate challenger says Johnny Isakson to blame for Pentagon’s PR disaster

Left to right, U.S. Senate debate between incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Libertarian Allen Buckley and Democrat Jim Barksdale on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 at Georgia Public Broadcasting. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
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Left to right, U.S. Senate debate between incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Libertarian Allen Buckley and Democrat Jim Barksdale on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 at Georgia Public Broadcasting. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

The Pentagon hasn’t had the best week thanks to a series of reports in The Los Angeles Times detailing how it was forcing current and former members of the military to repay enlistment bonuses that were doled out erroneously by the California National Guard in the mid-2000s.

Georgia’s Defense Department said the state isn’t experiencing the same issues with its own National Guardsmen, but that hasn’t stopped Jim Barksdale, the Democratic newcomer challenging Johnny Isakson for his U.S. Senate seat, from raising questions about what the Republican and his staff knew and when.

Barksdale’s camp is seizing upon reports that many members of Congress were aware of the so-called Pentagon clawbacks for years and didn’t act. It’s arguing that as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Isakson at best wasn’t properly notified about the problem by his staff and at worst knew about it but chose to do nothing.

“Senator Isakson owes answers to Georgia’s veterans as to whether he’s either the worst kind of hypocrite for blaming the Pentagon for his own failure to act or if he’s simply failing yet again as Chairman of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee by being out of touch and ineffective on urgent issues,” Barksdale said. “There’s no third option.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday suspected collections of the bonuses and called for a review of the process. Meanwhile, the California National Guard authority who was in charge of the bonus program a decade ago is serving prison time for filing millions in false claims.

Isakson called the situation “horrendous.” His campaign said the Republican knew nothing about the scandal before the reports were published over the weekend and underscored that if something similar had occurred in Georgia, Isakson would have known about it sooner and acted to stop it.

“Senator Isakson is in no way responsible for the actions of an individual that was acting in her official capacity more than 3,000 miles away,” an Isakson spokeswoman said. “To claim otherwise is utterly reprehensible, and Mr. Barksdale should be ashamed of his attempts to politicize our veterans and spread lies to score political points.”

Isakson’s spokeswoman said the Senate VA Committee Isakson oversees does not have jurisdiction over the issues touched on by the report. She said the two-term lawmaker submitted formal inquiries with the Pentagon, Georgia National Guard and VA to gauge the situation in the days since.

For all of the back and forth, the big irony here is that the two sides agree: veterans and active duty soldiers shouldn’t be penalized for the Pentagon’s mistakes. To that we ask: Is it Nov. 9 yet?


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