US drone operators face criminal fraud charges
PHOENIX (AP) — Nearly two dozen current and former members of the Arizona Air National Guard responsible for remotely operating drones to support troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been indicted on charges including theft and money laundering in a $1.4 million scam to defraud the U.S. government, authorities announced Monday.
The eight officers and 13 enlisted men and women, including the colonel and former commander of the 214 Reconnaissance Group, falsified their records and used fake home addresses in order to receive money meant for those traveling outside of their home regions for duty assignments, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said.
Between November 2007 and September 2010, authorities said some of the defendants took home salaries that were up to five times the amount they should have been receiving.
Some of the suspects defrauded the government of more than $100,000 each, Horne said.
“In this case, all of these people lived in Tucson and put down fraudulent homes of record in other states” to qualify for the extra pay, Horne added.
The indictment announced Monday comes after an 18-month investigation by state and federal agencies.
Only eight of those charged remain members of the National Guard, said Brig. Gen. Michael T. McGuire, adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard.
The suspects haven’t been arrested, but instead were sent summons to appear in court for arraignment Friday in Tucson. The indictment will be unsealed then.
The suspects worked out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson and were part of an elite military unit tasked with flying drones over Iraq and Afghanistan aimed at providing vital information to troops on the ground.
The charges include conspiracy, conducting an illegal enterprise, fraud, theft and money laundering. Authorities said, if convicted, some of the defendants could be sentenced to up to 12 1/2 years in prison with the commander facing more serious charges for using his position of power to help facilitate the scam.