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Money talks: What debt says about you

How you manage your loans says much about your character and integrity

  • The Guardian
  • Published: 21:42 November 25, 2012
  • Gulf News

Jill Kelley, one of the women at the center of the David Petraeus scandal, is a married Tampa socialite who is so deeply in debt that she could be a personal-finance case study.

She and her husband owe more than $328,000 on their palatial home, which is in foreclosure. They also owe $250,000 in credit-card bills, according to the New York Daily News.

Kelley did not work for the government. And in fact, she probably could not have done so even if she had wanted to, at least at the same level of the people she socialized with.

The US Department of Defense has explicit guidelines, which describe debt as a character issue: “Failure or inability to live within one’s means, satisfy debts, and meet financial obligations may indicate poor self-control, lack of judgment, or unwillingness to abide by rules and regulations, all of which can raise questions about an individual’s reliability, trustworthiness and ability to protect classified information. An individual who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds.”

Too much debt, or debt that goes unpaid, doesn’t just wreck a credit score it also reduces a person’s security clearance.

“If you look at espionage cases in the US, the majority revolved around someone trying to pay off debt or get money,” said Evan Lesser, managing director of ClearanceJobs.com, a jobs board for people working in jobs that require security clearance.

He added: “The more debt you have, the more temptation you have to commit some sort of illegal or unethical act to pay off those funds.”

Not all debt is bad; in today’s society it would be nearly impossible to live debt-free. The Department of Defense rules say judges must take it into account when a person falls into financial trouble because of circumstances outside his or her control, like an illness or job loss.

But the department does judge people by their willingness to address their debts: if applicants have “a history of not meeting their financial obligations” or “show an inability or unwillingness to satisfy debts”, they are likely to be rejected not just for their debt burden, but also because of what it indicates about their integrity.

In one recent case that is listed on a Pentagon website, a 58-year-old who had worked as a government contractor for more than 30 years fell into foreclosure as he and his wife became responsible for several houses at least one because of a death in the family and failed to keep up their multiple mortgage payments. They tried to sell the houses, but the housing crash made it impossible.

The man and his wife entered a debt settlement program and “now live frugally” on $750 a month, after paying all their expenses. The Department of Defense summary of the man’s petition to keep his security clearance indicates that the couple are still searching for every way possible to save money and pay off their debts. “

His wife has also actively used an on-line program called the ‘frugality game’ that helps her find ways to save money,” the summary says.

Another applicant for security clearance filed in October. Hypertension and anxiety kept him from working for two years and then, while he was nursing his wife through a high-risk pregnancy, he lost his job.

He drained his 401k to pay his mortgage, utilities and food bills, but could not pay his credit-card bills, which put him $36,000 in debt. He has been working since July 2010, bringing home $3,000 to $4,000 a month, which has not left him much to pay off the debt particularly now another child is on the way. To get a pay raise he needed security clearance, so he petitioned the defense department in October.

An administrative judge rejected his appeal, concluding: “In this case the Government has met its initial burden of proving that the Applicant has been financially irresponsible The evidence indicates poor judgment, unreliability and untrustworthiness on the part of the Applicant The Applicant has not demonstrated that he can properly handle his financial affairs or that he is fiscally responsible. Under the particular circumstances of this case, the Applicant has not met his burden of proving that he is worthy of a security clearance.”

The judge recommended that the man seek debt rehabilitation many government agencies will reconsider and hire people who have successfully paid down their debts or shown a willingness to do so.

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