Prominent Southwest Washington Fishing Guide Convicted of Disability Fraud Scheme
Defendant Claimed he was Disabled and Unemployed at the Same Time his Business was Profitable and Featured in Magazines, Online and on the Radio
A prominent Southwest Washington fishing guide, who was convicted last year of killing two protected wild salmon, was convicted today in U.S. District Court in Tacoma of a disability fraud scheme, announced U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. BILLY JIM SWANN, 53, was convicted following a three-day trial before U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan. Judge Bryan found SWANN guilty of perjury, wire fraud, and Social Security fraud for his 8-year scheme to obtain disability benefits to which he was not entitled. Judge Bryan set sentencing for June 22, 2018.
According to records filed in the case and testimony at trial, SWANN applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2006, claiming that he had been disabled and unable to work since 2003. When Social Security denied the claim, SWANN appealed and swore before an administrative law judge that his only work activity was as a volunteer for a few weeks in the summer at an Alaska fishing camp. When SWANN’s claims for disability benefits were again denied, SWANN filed an appeal in U.S. District Court, again with numerous false claims about his alleged disabilities. SWANN claimed his disability interfered with his ability to walk, climb stairs and use his hands, and that he needed a cane to walk. SWANN claimed that the accident that caused his disability in 2003, also caused him cognitive problems, limiting his ability to carry on a conversation.
Contrary to SWANN’s claims, between 2006 and 2014, he had a busy and successful business known as Swanny’s Guided Fishing. SWANN offered guided fishing trips in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. SWANN was featured on the cover of Northwest Sportsman Magazine, was sponsored by numerous outdoor equipment brands, and was a regular guest on fishing shows carried on the radio. In 2012, the year he told an administrative law judge that he had not worked at all, SWANN took in $92,503 for his fishing guide business.
SWANN’s applications for benefits were repeatedly denied by Social Security. Had SWANN been successful in his scheme, he and his family would have collected more than $200,000 in benefits.
Perjury and Social Security fraud are punishable by up to five years in prison. Wire fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Those are the maximum penalties, and the actual sentence imposed will be determined by Judge Bryan based on a number of sentencing factors.
The fraud scheme was uncovered during a 2016 investigation of SWANN’s illegal conduct on the Cowlitz River. On October 1, 2014, SWANN led a promotional fishing trip on the Cowlitz River. The trip was being broadcast over the internet. SWANN encouraged his clients to catch two native Coho salmon. Native Coho on the Cowlitz are protected by the Endangered Species Act and Washington law, and may not be removed from the water. After the clients landed the fish, SWANN clubbed both of them and then cut off the adipose fins on each fish to make it appear they were hatchery fish and therefore legal to catch and keep. However, evidence of the catching and clubbing of the wild and protected fish was caught on the web broadcast, and the illegal conduct was reported to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. SWANN entered a guilty plea to violating the Endangered Species Act. In March 2017, SWANN was fined $7,500 for the federal misdemeanor conviction.
The case was investigated by the Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General (SSA-OIG) and NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Seth Wilkinson and Special Assistant United States Attorney Benjamin Diggs. Mr. Diggs is an attorney with the Social Security Administration specially designated to prosecute fraud cases in federal court.