A case in which several sailors face charges for arranging sham marriages to foreign women to boost their military housing allowances sends an important message to all servicemembers, a Navy lawyer told the Pentagon Channel.
"You're putting in a claim for money that you are not entitled to, and that is a crime. And if you commit a crime, you can expect to be held accountable for it," said Capt. Jennifer Herold, the Navy's deputy assistant judge advocate general for criminal law policy. "This is something that each of the services take very seriously."
On the surface, the scheme looked like a good deal, at least for the people directly involved. The sailors got bigger paychecks when factoring in the higher basic allowance for housing.
Active-duty servicemembers receive the tax-free BAH payment to offset their housing costs if they don't live on base. The allowance increased based on location, marital status and the number of dependents.
That's on top of the $6,000 each of the women paid the seaman who arranged the marriages, Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney general's office in Jacksonville, Fla., said.
By marrying into the U.S. military, the women, eight from Poland and one from Romania, qualified to apply for U.S. citizenship and receive a military dependent identification card.
But in the end, everyone involved in the deal turned out to be a loser.
A Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent aboard the USS John F. Kennedy got tipped off to the scam and launched an investigation in September. NCIS agents learned that eight sailors stationed in Mayport, Fla., and a former sailor fraudulently married the women to get the BAH.
An investigation by NCIS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement found that none of the women lived with the sailors they had married. In several cases, the sailors claimed the women lived in high-cost areas so they qualified for higher BHAs.
The Navy stopped the allowances, which amounted to a total of $35,000, in November.
But the consequences got more serious earlier this month when U.S. Attorney Paul Perez, Carol Kisthardt from NCIS, and Robert Weber from ICE announced the arrests of eight sailors and one former sailor on charges of marriage fraud or conspiracy to commit marriage fraud. Their wives were also charged.
The sailors and women involved could face up to five years in prison per count against them, Cole said.
"A lot of people don't realize the seriousness of this and think they'll simply get a slap on the hand it they're caught," said Cole, a former soldier. "But as this case shows, the consequences are really serious."
Submitting a false BAH claim -- whether it involves a sham marriage or doctoring numbers to get a bigger payment -- is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Herold said.
In the most severe cases, the penalty is a dishonorable discharge and up to 10 years confinement, she said.
Herold offered a warning to anyone who thinks BAH fraud is no big deal. "They need to stop and think hard before they decide to commit that crime, because the military takes it very seriously," she said.