Buncombe Co. Man Pleads Guilty To Receiving Nearly $1 Million In Veteran Benefits Based On Fraudulent Service-Connected Disabilities
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Acting U.S. Attorney William T. Stetzer announced that John Paul Cook, 57, of Alexander, N.C. appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge W. Carleton Metcalf on Monday, July 19, 2021, and pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) by receiving nearly $1 million in veteran benefits based on fraudulent claims of service-connected disabilities.
Kim Lampkins, Special Agent in Charge of the Mid-Atlantic Field Office, Washington, D.C., of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG), joins Acting U.S. Attorney Stetzer in making today’s announcement.
According to the criminal indictment, filed plea documents and admissions made in court, Cook enlisted in the United States Army (the Army) in November 1985. Court documents show that six months later Cook sustained an accidental injury while on duty. Following the incident, Cook complained that as a result of the accident and injuries he sustained, a preexisting eye condition had worsened. In 1987, following a medical evaluation, Cook was discharged, placed on the retired list, and began receiving VA disability-based compensation at a rate of 60%. Over the next 30 years, Cook’s disability-based compensation increased, following Cook’s repeated false claims of increased visual impairment and unemployability due to “severe visual deficit.” As Cook admitted in court, in 2005, based on his claims of severe visual impairment, the VA declared Cook legally blind and he began receiving disability-based compensation at the maximum rate. Cook also began to receive additional benefits, including Special Monthly Compensation (an extra monetary allowance paid to a qualifying veteran due to the severity of his disability), Specially Adapted Housing (a grant that goes toward paying for adaptations in a new home), and Special Housing Adaptation (a grant that goes toward remodeling an existing home).
According to court records, Cook’s monthly VA disability payments in 1987 were $1,411 per month. With the incremental increases in his disability rating, as well as cost-of-living adjustments and his Special Monthly Compensation, these payments steadily increased over the years. By 2016, the monthly payment had risen to $3,990. In total, from 1987 through 2017, Cook received approximately $978,138 in VA disability payments due to his claimed blindness, to which he was not lawfully entitled.
According to admissions reflected in plea documents, contrary to Cook’s filed claims with the VA for additional disability claims and his complaints of increased visual impairment, Cook repeatedly passed vision screening tests to renew or obtain a driver’s license in North and South Carolina. Furthermore, during the relevant time period, court documents show that Cook purchased and registered over 30 different motor vehicles which Cook routinely drove, including on long-distance trips and to perform errands. Court records further show that, from 2010 to 2016, during a time period that Cook was receiving maximum VA disability benefits for his visual impairment, Cook was actively involved with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), including serving as a Den Leader and a Cubmaster. Among the courses the defendant completed with the BSA were courses qualifying him to be a range officer for BB guns and for archery. He was also certified for land navigation, which involves reading maps and using a compass.
The charge of stealing from the VA carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A sentencing date for Cook has not been set.
In making today’s announcement Acting U.S. Attorney Stetzer thanked the VA-OIG for their investigation of the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville is in charge of the prosecution.