Federal Indictment Charges Buncombe County Man For Receiving Veteran Benefits Based On Fraudulent Service-Connected Disabilities
Defendant Collected over $978,138 in Disability Benefits
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray announced today that John Paul Cook, 57, of Alexander, N.C. is facing multiple federal charges for defrauding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) by receiving veteran benefits based on fraudulent 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 U.S. Attorney Murray in making today’s announcement.
According to allegations contained in the federal indictment, Cook enlisted in the United States Army (the Army) in November 1985. The indictment alleges 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.” The indictment alleges that, in 2005, based on Cook’s claims of severe visual impairment, Cook was declared legally blind and began receiving disability-based compensation at a 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 allegations in the indictment, Cook’s monthly VA disability payments in 1987 were $1,411 per month. With the 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.
The indictment alleges that, 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. The indictment further alleges that, during the relevant time period, Cook purchased and registered over 30 different motor vehicles which Cook routinely drove, including on long-distance trips, to perform errands, and to drive to medical appointments. As alleged in the indictment, 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 indictment alleges that, in addition to the fraudulently obtained disability benefits for visual impairment, Cook also defrauded the VA’s Beneficiary Travel Program, after filing multiple false claims for mileage reimbursement in connection with his medical appointments. The VA terminated Cook’s blindness-related disability payments in October 2017.
The federal criminal indictment charges Cook with one count of stealing from the VA, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; three counts of making false statements in connection with obtaining VA disability payments, which carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, per count; and three counts of a making false claims for travel benefits from the VA, which carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, per count.
The indictment also contains a Notice of Forfeiture seeking a money judgement in the amount of $978,138, which is the amount constituting the proceeds of Cook’s alleged fraudulent conduct.
The charges contained in the indictment are allegations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
In making today’s announcement U.S. Attorney Murray 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.