Four-star general being investigated for lavish trip spending

A four-star Army general is under investigation for allegedly misusing hundreds of thousands of government dollars on travel, hotels and other unauthorized expense, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.

The general has been identified as William "Kip" Ward, the first leader of the U.S. Africa Command.

Among the allegations are that Gen. Ward allowed family members and other unauthorized people to fly on government planes and that he spent excessive amounts of taxpayer dollars on hotel rooms, transportation and other expenses when he traveled as head of the Africa Command.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to decide on Ward’s military future following the release of a Defense Department inspector general’s report, which is now under legal review and is expected to be out within the next couple of weeks.

Panetta could demote Ward before he is allowed to retire, effectively forcing him to retire at a lower rank and reducing his benefits.

Because Ward's alleged offenses occurred while he was a four-star general, he could be forced to retire as a three-star, which officials said could cost him as much as $1 million in retirement pay and overtime. It was not immediately clear whether Ward also could face criminal charges or whether he will be fined.

Service members can retire only at the rank at which they served honorably, and a four-star general is the highest rank in the Army.

The inspector general’s investigation lasted about 17 months. Ward did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

While the exact amount of alleged misspending was not disclosed, the estimated total raises comparisons with the $823,000 allegedly spent by dozens of employees of the General Services Administration, who were accused of lavish spending during an October 2010 conference at a Las Vegas resort.

Panetta's options regarding Ward are limited by complex laws and military guidelines.

In making his decision, Panetta has to certify to Congress that Ward served satisfactorily at the rank at which he is retired.

Ward stepped down early last year after serving as the first head of the Europe-based Africa Command, which was created in 2007, and he intended to retire.

He did all the paperwork and attended a retirement ceremony in April 2011, but the Army halted his plans to leave because of the investigation.

Ever since then, Ward has been serving as a special assistant to the vice chief of the Army, and he lives in Washington.

That Army office long has been used as a holding area for general officers of varying ranks. For some it's a way station where senior officers under investigation go to await their fate.

For others, it's a quick stop en route to a new high-level command or assignment, a place they can hang their hat for a few weeks, working on special projects until their new post becomes available.

The Stuttgart, Germany-based Africa Command was created in order to place a stronger focus on the continent, including vast sections of the north and east where Al Qaeda-linked militant groups train and wage attacks. No U.S. military forces are assigned to Africa Command, other than the roughly 2,000 troops in Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, based in Djibouti.

U.S. military activities in Africa long have been a sensitive subject among many nations that inhabit the sprawling continent and worry that the U.S. would try to establish bases or send forces there. Initial plans to set up a headquarters for Africa Command on the continent hit resistance and were shelved.

A key element of Ward's job was to dispel worries about the new command, meet with African leaders and work to expand and strengthen U.S. military ties so that the nations there are better able to provide for their own defense.

Gen. Carter Ham took over the command last year, gaining accolades as one of two key U.S. military leaders directing operations in the Libya conflict.

Ward holds a master’s degree in political science from Pennsylvania State University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Morgan State University. His service has included overseas tours in Korea, Egypt, Somalia, Bosnia, Israel, two tours in Germany, and a wide variety of assignments in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, according to his military biography.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.