CAMP PENDLETON -- Matt Hughes served as an infantryman in the Marine Corps for a decade. He wanted to continue his service to the community and hoped to find a job as a police officer.
After applying to multiple law enforcement agencies in Orange and Los Angeles counties and being told budget cuts had stalled job opportunities, Hughes learned Camp Pendleton was hiring civilian police to provide security alongside Marines and federal officers.
In 2009, he got the job. Now, nine years later, he's being told to pay back nearly $40,000 in over-payment for his services.
Hughes, 38, of Mission Viejo, is a patrol sergeant and one of 60 civilian police officers at the Provost Marshal's Office at Camp Pendleton, who on Friday, March 23, were told they will have to pay back tens of thousands of dollars each to the federal government due to a glitch.
Due to an accounting error, federal officials say, the officers were paid on the wrong pay scale from 2008 to 2016. Another 33 civilian police officers at Naval Station Fallbrook also are affected.
Individual debts range from $12,000 to $80,000. The average overpayment was $3,500 annually, according to Robert Richey, president of the police officer's union, the National Federation of Federal Employees.
In April 2017, the police officers were notified by the Department of Defense's Finance and Accounting Services -- charged with processing payroll for civilians working for the Department of the Navy -- that the error had been discovered. They were told they would be required to pay back some amount, but it was undetermined until an audit was conducted.
Friday's debt letters, which also went to former employees, some now retired and who were never formally notified of the error a year ago, detailed the amounts owed.
The Navy Office of Civilian Human Resources -- which determines the rate of pay for their employees -- found an erroneous locality-based pay rate had been used to set pay for some employees for a period of time, said Steve Burghardt, spokesman for DFAS.
"Navy OCHR processed actions to correct the error, resulting in employees showing as overpaid and placing them in a debt status," he said.
At Camp Pendleton, base officials held town halls to help police officers understand what happened and how to move forward.
"We stand in full support of our police officers and understand how indebtedness can impact their welfare and morale," said Carl Redding, a spokesman for the Marine base. "The civilian human resources office is expeditiously coming to a resolution and will continue to advocate for our civilian personnel to be treated fairly, understanding the expectations set forth by the Defense Finance and Accounting Services. Our civilian police officers provide such an added benefit for base security and we are grateful for all their hard work and dedication."
Officers have been told they have three options: pay the money back now; request a payment plan; or submit a waiver request for the entire amount. They were told there is no guarantee a waiver will be granted.
How it happened
"We were told that in 2016 a police officer left this area and went to the East Coast," said Lt. Brad Ducat, who oversees the 60 police officers and a contingent of Marines who work with the police department. "Human Resource personnel noticed that he got a pay rate he shouldn't have gotten."
Richey says the problem began in 2008 when the new civilian force was established at Camp Pendleton.
At that time, it was determined by the federal government that the new officers would be paid using a San Diego City special rate table for pay rates similar to those of civilian police officers being paid at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, which is inside the San Diego city limits. But after the audit in 2017, it was discovered that the police officers at Camp Pendleton and Fallbrook should have been paid at a lower county rate.
"Every officer has a contract that says, you will be paid this amount," said Ducat, a Marine veteran and father of four from Oceanside. "A lot of police officers would not be here if they weren't getting the rate of pay they were promised.
"When we were hired, HR said you're getting this much," he said. "We didn't have the ability to know whether it was the correct amount or not. Our union has no bargaining power for pay or benefits."
Since the adjustment, as of January 2018, the starting salary for a police officer at Camp Pendleton is $39,655. A new officer with the Orange County Sheriff's Department starts at $65,499 while attending the police academy.
For his officers, Ducat said, the uncertainty has created a lot of anxiety and has driven some to leave the department.
"I have a wife and kids," he said. "Not a day passes that I haven't thought about the indebtedness. It could change where I live and how I live."
What civilian police officers do
Civilian officers are hired to augment Marine law enforcement battalions who are often transitory, especially during deployments. Nearly all those who work as police officers at the Camp Pendleton department have served in the military -- many are Marines. Just like any police unit, they are responsible for safety and security at the base, which has a permanent population of 88,000, rising to a daytime population of 120,000.
Police officers work four 10-hour shifts per week. They are responsible for all law enforcement and security duties, keeping watch over active-duty Marines as well as their families, retirees and government employees who live on base. They patrol the roadways of a base that spans 125 square miles and at peak times of the day is occupied by about 35,000 motorists.
Dealing with the job and stress of debt
On Friday, Hughes was informed he owes $39,809.
"It's very demoralizing," Hughes said. "I try to remain positive but it's hard to stay focused on the job. Sometimes I think maybe I'm done and I'll find another job. Being a police officer is stressful enough. You need to be in the right mind. If you're not in that place, it's hard to help other people who might be experiencing the worst day of their lives."
The stress also has impacted his family life. His wife, who teaches children with autism, has decided to go back to school for her master's degree. "I feel bad she's doing extra work to provide stability for our family in case my job goes away," Hughes said.
In the letter received Friday, Hughes was informed that his debt must either be repaid in full by April 28 or that a payment plan must be set up by then. If he does neither, he was told, automatic deductions will start.
"I expected my debt to be in the $40,000 range," he said. "Actually seeing it was a shock. Being paid 40 percent less than other agencies for the same job is already difficult to swallow and now with this debt, it makes me wonder if it's worth it to continue to work here."
This article is written by Erika I. Ritchie from Orange County Register and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.