A four-star Army general who was the first head of the U.S. African Command is under investigation for possibly lavishing hundreds of thousands of dollars improperly on travel and hotels.

Gen. William ‘Kip’ Ward, who at four stars has the highest rank in the Army, could be demoted if the imminent results of the 17-month investigation reveal he spent money inappropriately.

Gen. William ‘Kip’ Ward

Officials told the Associated Press that Ward, 63, is facing allegations that he allowed unauthorized people, including family members, to fly on government planes.

There are also accusations that he spent excessively on hotel rooms, transport and ‘other’ expenses – all while traveling as head of Africa Command, a role he started in 2007 on its creation.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make a final decision on the matter and Ward’s potential demotion before the end of the month, defense officials said.

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He had sought to retire last year and carried out the paperwork to make it possible, before attending his retirement ceremony in April 2011 at Fort Myer, Virginia.

But the Army has since put his retirement on hold as the investigation is under way – and he will only be allowed to retire once they conclude which rank he will be.

He has been working in Northern Virginia, serving as a special assistant to the vice chief of the Army.

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.

It was not immediately clear whether Ward also could face criminal charges.

It is unlikely he would be demoted as far as two-star rank; investigators would have to conclude that he also had problems before Africa Command, and officials said that does not appear to be the case.

The investigation has dragged on so long that Ward technically has been demoted from his four-star general rank to two-star general. Under military guidelines, if a 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.

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