WASHINGTON (AP) -- A four-star Army general who was the first head of the new U.S. Africa Command is under investigation and facing possible demotion for allegedly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars improperly on lavish travel, hotels and other items, The Associated Press has learned.
Gen. William "Kip" Ward has been under investigation for about 17 months, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to make a final decision on the matter before the end of the month, according to several defense officials.
The defense officials said Ward is facing numerous allegations that he spent several hundred thousand dollars allowing unauthorized people, including family members, to fly on government planes, and spent excessive amounts of money on hotel rooms, transportation and other expenses when he traveled as head of Africa Command.
A four-star general is the highest rank in the Army.
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.
Officials described the investigation to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because it is a personnel matter and the report on the investigation has not been released publicly.
The Defense Department inspector general has completed its investigation into Ward's activities, and the issue is under legal review.
A request for comment from Ward was not immediately fulfilled Wednesday.
Panetta's options regarding Ward are limited by complex laws and military guidelines.
Panetta can demote Ward and force him to retire at a lower rank. 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 over time. It was not immediately clear whether Ward also could face criminal charges.
In order for Ward to be demoted to two-star rank, investigators would have to conclude that he also had problems prior to moving to Africa Command, and officials said that does not appear to be the case.
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 was hosted at a retirement ceremony in April 2011 at Fort Myer in Virginia, but the Army halted his plans to leave because of the investigation.
Ever since then, he has been working in Northern Virginia, serving as a special assistant to the vice chief of the Army.
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.
According to Army spokesman George Wright, Ward currently is the only special assistant to the vice chief, but at other times there can be several assigned there as they move from one command to the next.
For Ward, the investigation has dragged on so long that he technically has been demoted from his four-star general rank to two-star general. Under military guidelines, if a full general is not serving in a four-star command or office for more than 60 days, he or she is automatically reduced to two-star rank.
Major general, or two-star, is the highest rank to which an officer can be promoted by regular military action. Becoming a three-star - lieutenant general - or a four-star general requires a presidential nomination and confirmation by Congress. It, therefore, is not considered permanent, and lasts only as long as the person is serving in a job of that rank.
As a result, Ward's base pay went from more than $20,000 a month as a four-star to about $14,000 a month as a two-star general. Defense officials said that if the decision is to allow him to retire as a three-star or four-star, he would not receive any back pay for the 15 months he served at the lower rank.
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-Qaida-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.