A former soldier who defrauded Veterans Affairs out of nearly $1 million by pretending to have a service-connected disability was sentenced in court to less than a year in prison, according to the Department of Justice.
John Paul Cook, 58, from Marshall, North Carolina, received approximately $978,138 in disability payments from the VA between 1987–2017 due to his fake blindness, the DoJ said.
Despite his claims of being visually impaired, Cook repeatedly passed vision screening tests for his driver’s license, purchased and registered over 30 vehicles he routinely drove, and participated as a leader with the Boy Scouts of America in activities requiring eyesight, the DoJ added.
Federal district court judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. sentenced Cook to 10 months in prison, five of which will be served in home confinement, according to the DoJ. Additionally, Cook was ordered to serve three years of supervised release and to pay more than $930,000 back to the VA.
Court documents show that Cook enlisted in the Army in November 1985. The following year, after sustaining an injury, he argued that a preexisting eye condition had grown worse.
After a medical evaluation in 1987, Cook was discharged and began receiving VA disability benefits, the DoJ said. His compensation increased over the next 30 years and by 2005, when the VA wrongly declared Cook legally blind, his compensation reached the maximum rate.
He also received additional monetary benefits to remodel his home, the DoJ said.
“According to court records, Cook’s monthly VA disability payments in 1987 were $1,411 per month,” the DoJ stated in the release. “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.”
Cook was indicted in December 2020 and pleaded guilty to the theft of public money on July 19, 2021, court records show.
Court documents submitted by Cook’s attorney note that the Army veteran and father of two, “is deeply ashamed of his actions in this case...He knows this was wrong.”
Cook’s defense also noted he has been making repayments to the VA since 2017 when the department began “recouping his vision disability payments from his legitimate back disability payment.”
Cook’s attorney in the federal public defender’s office was not immediately available for comment.
On July 13 in Congress, lawmakers on the House oversight and reform panel discussed how to combat financial scams and fraud that disproportionately affect current and former troops, but scams involving government agencies like the VA are also common.
A church in Georgia, for instance, was raided by the FBI last month for allegedly scamming the VA out of millions, as reported by Military.com.
In July alone, the DoJ prosecuted a case against a soldier at Fort Stewart, Georgia, who schemed to target COVID-19 relief programs and a Rhode Island woman who falsified her military service to steal charitable contributions.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media