RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A former U.S. Marine lieutenant who faced murder charges for shooting a pair of unarmed Iraqis has been named as the new director of the N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs.
Ilario Pantano will start his new state job Sept. 5 and be paid an annual salary of $90,000.
In 2004, Pantano was charged by military prosecutors with two counts of murder over the killings in Iraq. A Marine general later ordered the charges dropped. Pantano said he viewed the unarmed men as a threat.
Pantano, who lives in Wilmington, campaigned unsuccessfully as a Republican for North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District seat in 2010 and 2012. He was also vice chairman of Veterans for McCrory, a group affiliated with the 2012 campaign of now Gov. Pat McCrory.
Pantano was hired by Administration Secretary Bill Daughtridge, a McCrory appointee whose department oversees veterans affairs.
Spokesman Chris Mears said Daughtridge is aware of the controversy surrounding Pantano’s military background. Pantano was one of four candidates that Daughtridge interviewed for the job, which was publically advertised to potential applicants, Mears said.
In a letter sent to veterans affairs staff announcing the hiring, Daughtridge praised Pantano’s experience managing “multi-disciplinary teams.”
“He is uniquely skilled at designing and implementing veterans advocacy programs, building public and private partnerships, achieving financial targets and streamlining operations,” Daughtridge wrote.
Pantano, 42, does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment.
As director of veteran’s affairs, Pantano will oversee programs that assist North Carolina military veterans and their families with receiving federal benefits. The division also administers a scholarship fund for the children of war veterans and provides care at four state-run nursing homes for veterans, as well as burial space at state veterans cemeteries.
Married with two young sons, Pantano is the son of an Italian immigrant who grew up in New York City. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17 and served in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. He then earned a degree in economics and went to work as an energy trader at Goldman Sachs.
Pantano was in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, and saw the World Trade Center towers collapse. Within weeks, he had rejoined the Marines.
While in Iraq in 2004 as a second lieutenant, Pantano’s infantry platoon stopped two men and searched their car. Pantano ordered the unarmed prisoners’ handcuffs removed, after which he says they made a threatening move. Pantano shot them, unloading a full 28-round magazine. He then reloaded and fired another full clip.
According to witness testimony later collected about the incident, Pantano hung a sign near the Iraqi’s bullet-riddled bodies that read “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy,” a slogan used at the time by Marines in Iraq.
In a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, Pantano said he used the amount of force he believed necessary.
“I was doing what it took to keep myself and my men alive, it’s that simple,” Pantano said.
In the aftermath, Pantano was charged with two counts of murder after one of the Marines under his command questioned his conduct. After a lengthy hearing widely covered by the media, a Marine general dropped the murder charges, ruling there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a recommendation for a full court martial.
Pantano resigned his commission in 2005 after receiving orders to deploy to Afghanistan. He said he had received death threats indicating he would be specifically targeted by jihadists.
As a political candidate, Pantano was staunchly anti-abortion, pro-gun and anti-tax. Identifying himself with the tea party movement, Pantano stumped at gun shows and held fundraisers where donors were invited to try out a small arsenal of high-powered firearms.
“Citizens who don’t have the right to bear arms become subjects,” he told the AP last year.
Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck