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Four-star general accused of lavish spending could be demoted

General William Ward has been under investigation for about 18 months for lavish spending; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to release a decision about what will happen to him in coming days.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to release a decision about a four-star Army general accused of extravagant spending, NBC News has learned.

General William “Kip” Ward, the first head of the new U.S. Africa Command, was accused of misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel and hotels.

The estimated total raises comparisons with the $823,000 allegedly spent by dozens of employees of the General Services Administration during an October 2010 conference at a Las Vegas resort.

Ward, 63, has been under investigation for about 18 months. He retired but was kept on active duty in Northern Virginia, where he has been 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.

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It remains unclear whether Ward will face disciplinary action.

Since Ward's case is in Panetta's hands, under the Code of Military Justice, Ward would be spared criminal charges and a court martial. Any punishment, such as demotion in rank, would be considered "administrative."

Ward 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.

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.

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.

The Associated Press and NBC's Jim Miklaszewski contributed reporting.

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