As the Army finishes its review of botched recruiting fraud investigations that branded troops with false criminal histories, the service has awarded a previously denied promotion to an officer who led the charge to correct the errors after they derailed his career.

Now-Maj. Gilberto De Leon was selected for major in 2019. However, because investigators from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division improperly listed him in criminal databases years before, his promotion was halted after an automated records review found “adverse information.” Even though he’d never been charged and a review board deemed him promotable, De Leon’s promotion eligibility expired in spring 2022 before he could pin on his new rank.

Frustrated, he wrote a March 2022 op-ed for Military Times, and became the public face of thousands of troops whom CID investigated and submitted to criminal databases without arrest or prosecution. Resulting pressure from advocates and lawmakers led the Army to review thousands of cases to identify and correct improper database entries that have upended lives.

Amid pressure from Congress, the agency has completed its review and “will provide a detailed report to Congress within the next month,” said Ronna Weyland, a spokesperson for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division.

After his Wednesday promotion, De Leon will receive two years of back pay and medically retire in the higher grade, according to documents he shared with Army Times. But he said he doesn’t believe that’s enough for what he and others endured, which included false arrest records submitted to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database.

“Mere removal of criminal titles and reinstatement of earned ranks does not equate to achieving righteous justice or accountability,” De Leon said in a text message, adding that he wants to see continued scrutiny from lawmakers and “a public apology” from senior leaders. He also criticized the service’s communication with him in a post on LinkedIn, and said he learned from media reports that the Senate had approved his promotion.

De Leon, who was the first-known soldier to be formally cleared in the Army’s internal review of the recruiting fraud investigations, is now the first-known soldier to have its negative impacts on their career reversed.

G-RAP, as it was known while active from 2005 to 2012, paid a private company to employ off-duty Guardsmen as independent contractor “recruiting assistants.” The recruiting assistants received around $2,000 for each new enlisted soldier they referred to Guard recruiters, and the program helped refill the Army National Guard’s ranks during the bloody surge years of the Global War on Terror.

But service officials abruptly ended the program in 2012 when an internal audit identified nearly one in four payments as possibly fraudulent, kicking off one of the largest criminal investigations in Army history: CID’s Task Force Raptor.

The task force’s personnel, many of whom were reservists and recalled retirees, worked fervently — and in some cases, unfairly — under pressure from Congress to find the alleged fraud.

Only 137 people ever faced criminal charges from the investigation. The CID task force, which cost around $28 million, never yielded anything near the $92 million in payments that auditors flagged as potentially fraudulent. Lawmakers pushed the service to find a way to inflict administrative consequences on those who couldn’t face charges due to the statute of limitations or evidentiary problems.

“What tools do you have to make sure that everyone understands that there was punishment here?” asked then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a Feb. 4, 2014 contracting oversight hearing with Army officials. “Even if they’re not going to prison — even if those criminal statute[s] of limitations have run — I need to know what else you can do.”

In response, the Army’s top law enforcement officer, Maj. Gen. David Quantock, told the senator that the service has “many administrative tools in the [Army] Secretary’s kitbag” for targeting those they can’t prosecute.

De Leon fell victim to that administrative “kitbag,” despite never being arrested or charged with a crime. Investigators inappropriately added him and as many as 1,900 others to Defense Department and FBI databases.

CID’s director, Gregory Ford, shared data from an initial review of 900 such cases in November. He said the agency found “the majority” of those records were incorrect and required “some form of correction.”

For years, many who quietly received such punishments weren’t aware of them. Then the impacts started appearing in their daily lives — Guardsmen who worked as police officers lost their jobs, others had weapons permits and other state licenses denied, and a handful of officers had previously approved promotions derailed.

That’s what happened to De Leon, who was first recommended for promotion in 2019.

An impacted contracting officer featured in an April 2022 Army Times investigation, Capt. Justin Tahilramani, was administratively denied his promotion to major as well despite having passed strict ethical and background checks to enter the service’s Acquisition Corps. He was entered into criminal databases (but never arrested or charged) over three G-RAP payments he received for Texas cadets who enlisted after he gave a presentation on the benefits of joining up.

Officials knew about his G-RAP involvement when vetting him to award and administer government contracts.

“It was vindicating to know that they saw past it,” Tahilramani told Army Times last year. “They saw me for what I brought to the table.”

Now, despite CID formally clearing him and removing his incorrect entries from criminal databases, he’s no longer on active duty. He left because the administrative burden of fixing his records was pushed onto him, he explained, and he was concerned that the Army would scuttle his second chance at promotion and involuntarily discharge him for failing to promote.

“Add[ing] to the insane irony,” Tahilramani told Army Times, “I got hired back as a fully remote contracting officer for Army Contracting Command...[whose leadership] has stood by my side and have bent over backwards to support me.”

But it’s still not clear whether his military records will be fixed as De Leon’s were. So far, Tahilramani said he’s received “no word on the status” of any promotions.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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