Armed Forces: The Military Mafia

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Military lore is replete with tales of slick operators who fast-talk their way past obtuse superiors, navigate bureaucratic absurdities and come out winners. Sergeant Bilko of TV and Milo Minderbinder of Catch-22 are winked at as engaging barracks rogues, and most Americans only chuckle when told, as one Pentagon official said last week, that "everyone has his own racket in the Army."

Suddenly the humor has turned black. Scandal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, tainting both Army brass and noncoms, has shaken a Pentagon already under attack from every side. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is digging into corruption in Army noncommissioned officers' clubs in the U.S., Germany and Viet Nam. The key figures implicated have held two of the Army's most respected positions. One is Sergeant Major William O. Wooldridge, 46, once the top enlisted man in the Army. He has been accused of running a "Little Mafia" of senior sergeants that systematically bilked service clubs. The other is retired Major General Carl C. Turner, 56, the Army's former provost marshal general, or head military policeman, who later served as chief U.S. marshal in the Justice Department. Turner, according to testimony, quashed an investigation of Wooldridge and also sold Army firearms for personal profit.

Secret Accounts. Last week congressional investigators delineated an empire of larceny, kickbacks, assumed names and secret accounts in foreign banks that was allegedly run by Wooldridge and four fellow topkicks. The sergeants, some of whom were custodians of servicemen's clubs, were said to have skimmed $350,000 a year from club slot machines in Germany and used the money to set up their own company, Maredem, Ltd., to sell supplies at inflated prices to clubs in Viet Nam. Maredem's partners, who somehow managed to get transfers as a group, became custodians of the clubs in Viet Nam. Thus they, allegedly, sold goods to themselves. In 1968 alone, Wooldridge was said to have made $34,454 from Maredem, the others $44,574 each.

Corruption in the clubs was not confined to the Little Mafia, according to testimony. One booking agent, a blonde former dancer named June Collins, 34, said that all the club custodians whom she knew in Viet Nam demanded and received kickbacks from entertainers. She reported paying about $10,000 in two years to get jobs for clients, and was still frozen out of one club after she rebuffed the custodian's amorous advances. She heard one sergeant boast that "being a custodian is worth $150,000."

Country Boy. Miss Collins and other show people complained to Army and Air Force authorities, but were ignored.

The implication, supported by other witnesses, was that officers could not have cared less about hanky-panky among sergeants. Turner was accused of throttling an inquiry into a service-club scandal at Fort Benning, Ga., telling subordinate investigators: "Wooldridge is just a good ol' country boy."

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