If you're a military officer, you can't miss First Command Financial Planning of Fort Worth.
It sells life insurance and investments to young officers serving around the world. Many of its executives and most of its agents were officers once themselves, and they let you know it. A parade of retired generals and admirals serve on its advisory boards. With more than 300,000 customers, virtually all of them current or former officers, the company depends on the military for its very existence.
First Command was not happy a year ago when it discovered that a legal office at Air Force headquarters had put out a notice asking military lawyers in the field for feedback on "reports of possible unethical or overly aggressive" sales practices by the company's agents. The notice also raised questions about the suitability of the company's core product, an archaic and expensive type of mutual fund with sales fees that eat up half of an investor's first-year contributions.
First Command fought back: it complained to the second- most-powerful general in the Air Force. And it was heard.
The New York Times has found that within three weeks of the legal office's posting, the Air Force issued a retraction, which it had allowed the company to edit. It gave the company a letter of exoneration, signed by the Air Force's top legal officer, after letting the company edit that, too. The Air Force legal staff stopped cooperating with a securities industry investigation into the company's practices and products. And the Air Force effectively abandoned a broad inquiry of its own, letting local base authorities handle complaints.
One complaint was about a First Command agent who had made veiled threats against a young officer in Charleston, S.C., suggesting he could be court-martialed or sued for criticizing the company in an e-mail message.
I can't be court-martialed, but for those of you who can, please take this advice: Do not buy anything from First Command. Their sales practices for mutual funds and life insurance are punitive, far below civilian standards, and they are here to fleece you. Their CEO contributes to George W Bush, who sent you on a highly questionable mission in Iraq. Invest your money elsewhere, just keep it away from First Command.
For more background on our perspective on First Command, see this series of posts "First Command, Last Resort, Parts 3, 2, and 1."
And when Rush Limbaugh or Fox News or Sean Hannity bitch about liberals, remember who broke this story on behalf of soldiers. It sure as hell wasn't the conservatives.