Columbia Falls man admits government benefits fraud
MISSOULA—A Columbia Falls man accused of stealing government benefits by overstating his disabilities admitted fraud and theft charges in federal court on Dec. 12, U.S. Attorney Kurt G. Alme said.
John Cicero Hughes, 46, pleaded guilty to theft of government money and Social Security disability insurance fraud.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch presided and will recommend that Hughes’ plea be accepted by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who is assigned to case.
Hughes faces a maximum 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release. Sentencing is set for April 12, 2019. Hughes is released.
The government intends to seek restitution for the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration for an estimated loss totaling $830,061, with the understanding that Hughes will dispute that figure and that a judge ultimately will determine loss and restitution before imposing sentence.
If the case had proceeded to trial, the government would have presented the following information as evidence:
Hughes, a Navy veteran, was determined in 2009 to be 100 percent disabled by the VA based on confirmation of a prior diagnosis that he suffered from multiple sclerosis. Hughes represented he had total loss of both hands and feet in addition to other maladies. From 2009 through July 2018, Hughes received more than $7,000 a month from the VA.
In addition, because the VA had rated Hughes 100 percent disabled, he qualified for SS disability insurance benefits. The Social Security Administration paid Hughes and some of his family members about $1,400 a month from 2009 until the present.
During the nine-year period, Hughes misrepresented the nature and extent of his disabilities to VA doctors and other health professionals by claiming he could not drive or walk more than a few steps, had double vision, had little to no feeling in his left arm and leg, could not shop for himself or prepare his own meals and was essentially bound to either his bed or a motorized wheelchair.
An investigation found that Hughes drastically overstated his symptoms and limitations. In June 2017, the VA and SSA began an investigation into the extent of Hughes’ disability, which culminated in a Compensation and Pension Examination on Jan. 23, 2018 in Helena.
During the examination, Hughes claimed he had not driven since 2008 without adaptive equipment and did not drive to Helena for the appointment. He said he could not walk more than a few steps and chose to remain in a wheelchair during the entire exam. He also said he could not shop for himself, was essentially house-bound, had almost no feeling in his left arm and leg and could not open his left hand because of spasticity caused by MS.
Unbeknownst to Hughes, law enforcement officers surveilled Hughes when he arrived for the appointment, recorded and monitored the entire exam and surveilled him when he left the VA. Officers saw Hughes drive himself to the appointment in a truck with no adaptive equipment and walk into and out of the VA. Hughes then drove himself around Helena, running errands, including walking with a cane around a grocery store and using both hands to play machines at a local casino.
Agents also surveilled Hughes’ activities in the Flathead Valley in 2017. Agents saw Hughes drive a car and a Harley Davidson motorcycle several times, walk distances he had claimed for years he could not cover and do chores, including climbing a ladder during a snowstorm to brush snow off the roof of a recreational vehicle.
On Aug. 1, 2017, Hughes received a direct deposit of $7,056 from the VA into his bank account. The same day, agents observed Hughes drive his motorcycle to and from a car wash and walk about 50 feet without a cane.
When agents interviewed Hughes at his residence in February 2018, he stuck to his story about the extent of his disabilities but admitted to driving a motorcycle in the summer of 2017 and to driving to the VA exam in January. He eventually admitted to making some misrepresentations to the examiner at the VA and told the agents, “If it was wrong, it was wrong.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Racicot is prosecuting the case, which was investigated by VA’s and SSA’s Offices of Inspector General.