WASHINGTON -- America's top military officer is opposing the demotion of a four-star general who is accused of spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on lavish travel and other expenses in a case that has been sitting on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's desk for weeks, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is among those who believe that Gen. William Ward, the former head of U.S. Africa Command, should be allowed to retire at his full four-star general rank, the officials said.
A Defense Department inspector general's report released in mid-August concluded that Ward "engaged in multiple forms of misconduct related to official and unofficial travel." It said Ward "conducted official travel for primarily personal reasons," misused military aircraft and received reimbursement for travel expenses that far exceeded the approved daily military rate without authorization.
Panetta is hearing from all sides as he weighs his options in the case, and he has not made a final decision, officials said.
Other officials have argued that the allegations made against Ward in in the IG report were very serious and that senior officers need to be held accountable. Officials have suggested that similar misconduct by a lower ranking officer or enlisted military member would garner severe punishment or dismissal.
Asked about the matter, Dempsey said Thursday that he doesn't comment on recommendations he makes to the defense secretary. Pentagon press secretary George Little also declined to comment.
Retiring as a three-star would cost Ward nearly $30,000 a year in retirement pay _ giving him about $208,802 a year rather than the $236,650 he would get as a four-star. He also could be required to reimburse the Defense Department for tens of thousands of dollars in flight costs and other expenses that he incurred while at Africa Command.
Several officials described the internal debate on condition of anonymity because it involves sensitive personnel issues.
The inspector general's report found that Ward used military vehicles to shuttle his wife on shopping trips and to a spa and billed the government for a refueling stop overnight in Bermuda, where the couple stayed in a $750 suite, a Defense Department investigation found. It detailed lengthy stays at lavish hotels for Ward, his wife and his staff members, and the use of five-vehicle motorcades when he traveled to Washington.
It also said Ward and his wife, Joyce, accepted dinner and Broadway show tickets from a government contractor during a trip during which he went backstage to meet actor Denzel Washington. The couple and several staff members also spent two nights at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
The allegations, coming after a 17-month investigation, have delayed Ward's planned April 2011 retirement. And they were an embarrassing end note to his career, since he had claimed a place in history as the military's first commander of Africa Command.
Panetta's options regarding Ward are limited by complex laws and military guidelines. He can only demote Ward and force him to retire as a three-star lieutenant general.
In order for Ward to be demoted to two-star rank, investigators would have to conclude that he also had problems before moving to Africa Command, and officials said that does not appear to be the case.