OCEANSIDE -- After a recent eight-hour shift at the Provost Marshal's Office at Camp Pendleton, Lt. Brad Ducat came home to find a big package from Defense Finance and Accounting Services -- the Department of Defense's payroll for civilians working for the Navy and Marine Corps.
As he leafed through the 10-page document that laid out the federal government's response to his request to waive $38,000 he had been ordered to pay a year ago, he said, he was hopeful yet nervous.
"Initially, I just wanted to find the answer," Ducat said. "I was breezing through everything but I couldn't go fast enough to find the conclusion. I had to sit down and read the whole thing."
After a long read through pages of case law and committee findings, Ducat found the decision he and his family had hoped for. On page 5 of the document, he read: "Under the provisions of 5 U.S.C., we hereby waive $38,509.99 of the government's claim."
The debt was the amount Ducat was told he had to repay after the accounting department alerted him and 61 other civilian police officers at Camp Pendleton that they had been overpaid due to an error by the Department of Defense.
"We've all been thinking about it for a long time," said Ducat, who has worked on the base for 7 1/2 years. "To finally get something is a relief."
Ducat was the first of his department to get the reprieve. Since Ducat's notice arrived March 8, a dozen more officers at Camp Pendleton have received waiver notices.
Due to the accounting error, federal officials said, the officers were paid on the wrong wage scale from 2008 to 2016. Another 41 civilian police officers at Naval Station Fallbrook also were affected.
Individual debts ranged from $12,000 to $80,000. The average overpayment was $3,500 annually, said Robert Richey, a K-9 officer and president of the police officer's union, the National Federation of Federal Employees.
Officials with Defense Finance and Accounting Services, this week, confirmed 103 police officers at Camp Pendleton and Fallbrook were overpaid.
"Ninety-seven (officers) have submitted requests for waivers," said Steve Burghardt, spokesman for the Department of Finance and Accounting Services. "Eighteen partial waivers have been approved and 79 requests are currently being reviewed. Six impacted employees have not submitted waiver requests."
Burghardt said, thus far, all waivers for money owed for overpayment between 2008 to 2016 have been approved.
The police officers were notified by DFAS in April 2017 that the error had been discovered. They were told they would be required to pay back some amount, but wouldn't know how much until an audit was conducted.
On March 17, 2018, debt letters, which also went to former employees, some now retired and who were never formally notified of the error a year earlier, 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 Camp Pendleton and Fallbrook employees, Burghardt said. The officers were being paid at a rate meant for San Diego-based officers.
"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 townhalls to help police officers understand what happened and how to move forward.
Ducat, 49, and others were given until April 18 of last year to submit waiver packets. Police officers who left the department had their final paychecks taken, Ducat said.
"None of us are rich," he said, adding that most officers in the department are Marine veterans and, like him, choose to do the job because they want to stay close to the Marine Corps. "If we would have had to pay something like that, it would have had to be minimum payments. No one would have had a lump sum to pay back."
Union president Richey turned to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis for help.
"We contacted him and his office wrote a letter to Headquarters Marine Corps to look into this immediately," said Richey, who was informed he owes more than $48,000. Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein also sent letters to Mattis' office asking that the debt be waived and the collection process be halted.
The Department of Defense sent counselors to Camp Pendleton to help the officers fill out their waiver requests.
"I'm glad the majority of the debt is relieved," Richey said. "Myself, I've heard nothing since I submitted my waiver nine months ago. We have this hanging over our head and then all of a sudden we get a deduction. With debt collectors or child support payments, you get notified there will be a garnishment. All of a sudden the government takes the money when they want it. In some cases, officers had money taken out before they were informed of their waiver."
In Ducat's case, the letter that told him the $38,509.99 had been waived stated he would still have to pay back $356.80 -- the amount he was overpaid in the weeks after the accounting error had been found.
On March 21, he noticed his paycheck was short. He was missing $356.80.
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.